Look: there are two different issues in play here, but before I address them, let me give you a brief recap on what’s been happening. MTV’s latest sensation, this time a scripted series, premiered to huge ratings. No, not Jersey Shore huge, but still, over three million viewers huge.
The program, entitled Skins, is an adaptation of a frank and wildly popular British series that depicted the interactions and relationships of high schoolers. It caused a bit of a stir over in the UK, but basically, they moved on with their lives without an epic scandal. Over on this side of the pond, we’re a little more uptight about these sorts of things, and numerous parents groups have been accusing the show of bordering on child pornography. Taco Bell pulled their sponsorship, and a whole host of people have worked themselves into a tizzy. Today, The New York Times ran a long piece claiming executives at the network themselves were even worried about the content, especially a scene in the upcoming third episode where a 17 year old is shown naked from behind while he runs down the street hiding his erection.
So, now that you’re caught up, as I said, there are really two different issues in play here. The first is whether in fact this is child pornography, and the second is whether MTV should even be producing a show that could be considered child pornography. The answer to the first question is no, and the answer to the second question is maybe.
When I was in high school, four immature and unfortunate freshman took a picture of themselves topless, and it made its way around the school at a frenzied pace. They didn’t mean for the world to see it, but a kid snuck into an upstairs bedroom during a party, found the picture and put it on MySpace. He was quickly arrested, but for the next year of their lives, the whispers followed them. A few years later, I got to college and more than a few girls I knew ended up in the same situation. Just four years separated the women; yet, as I get older, that difference becomes more and more pronounced. Teenagers are going to have sex, and they’re going to make poor choices that sometimes will follow them for the rest of their lives, but as a society, it’s up to us to decide how long we should protect them.
The kids acting in Skins are in an entirely different situation than the girls I spoke of before. They have decided to be here, to be televised in their underwear and engaged in lascivious behavior, but once that material goes out to the world, they no longer have any control over it. One only has to look at Google to discern what celebrity pictures are the most popular, what film clips get the most online repeat play. We live in a culture obsessed with sex, and regardless of how careful or diligent the producers might be, the teenagers depicted in Skins will be sexualized. Britney Spears’ “One More Time” video has perhaps been sexualized more than any other music video in MTV history, and she was all of fifteen when it was shot. Was it obscene? Was it child pornography? No, and on paper, neither is Skins.
Teenagers are going to have sex regardless of whether Skins is on the air or not. It’s been happening since the beginning of time, and it will continue happening until we are no more. One could argue MTV has no bearing on the how’s and when’s of teenage sexual activity, but even if they don’t, the network has a responsibility to show that material realistically and tastefully. It’s like the recent controversy with Blue Valentine’s original NC-17 rating. Is it more harmful for teens to see glamorized, Hollywood sex that shows a little less or realistic intercourse with consequences that shows a little more? I would argue the former is far more damaging, and as such, Skins needs to highlight those consequences moving forward. Thus far, the program has done a great job of developing honest, human characters. Now those characters need to be held responsible for their choices.
MTV is without question exploiting teenage sexuality for ratings. They tried to do it with their last scripted series, and now they’re doing it again. But even so, it’s better for teenagers to watch their peers deal with real issues than 19 and 20 year olds glamorize copulating. I’m reminded of the overdramatic but still worthwhile Canadian drama series DeGrassi. The teenage characters on that show fornicated like no tomorrow, but they also got pregnant, freaked out over possible STDs and drowned in a sea of their own choices. I would stop short of lauding MTV for doing the same thing here, but as such, if they continue to be realistic and tasteful moving forward, there’s no reason why a slightly toned down Skins shouldn’t stay on the air.
Tasteful might seem like a bit of a subjective word, but it’s really not. You can tell by camera angles, how long hook up scenes last and the content of said hookup scenes. Let me give you an example. In American Beauty, Kevin Spacey disrobes and then begins kissing a high school senior. She stops him and admits she’s a virgin. He gets really overwhelmed, explains to her that can’t have sex because he can’t take that away from her. That’s a hook up scene with real content. Something in your average run of the mill R-rated movie that happens with an unimportant side character would be tasteless.
For something to actually be child pornography, in my opinion, it would need to involve people under the age of 18 actually screwing each other or naked enough to give it an R-rating. Skins isn’t going to have either of those things; therefore, it’s not child pornography, but that doesn’t change the fact that it does have a responsibility to be honest to its characters. Only time will tell what their real motives are.
Wrap that shit up, kids.