The Aspirational Teenage Bullshit of Skins

by thethreepennyguignol

Hey, you want to feel old?

Skins came out a decade ago. A decade ago! For almost everyone of my generation, Skins has become a good-natured joke that we crack, a summation of the hysteria of being a teenager contrasted with the distinct boredom that being actual teenagers really comes with. The UK version ran for six seasons (as well as a handful of mega-depressing round-up episodes a few years later), and launched the careers of a number of pretty well-respected and successful young actors (Nicholas Hoult, Hannah Murray, Kaya Scoledario) as it followed the “real” lives of a collection of “real” teenagers in a small English town.

It’s a fucking hilarious show, really, and one that I still have a great affection for: Skins, despite selling itself as the gritty Truth behind British Adolescence, is a highly-strung soap-opera for teenagers, an issue-of-the-week mess that descended mostly into the most high-key ridiculous scenario that they could throw at the wall by the season’s end. It’s depiction of mental illness (for the most part) and LGBTQ identities is still something that I hold quite dear to my heart, but looking back on it, sometimes it’s hard to see what the actual appeal of this show was to so many teenagers who watched it at the time.

Because what Skins is, really, is aspirational television for teenagers. Which might sound kind of crazy, all things considered, given that people drop dead and get spiked and are caught up in elaborate revenge plots involving being blackmailed into sex with their own sister.

But bear with me here. When you’re a teenager, little is more seductively attractive than the trappings of adulthood. Sex, drugs, rock, potentially even roll: the thought of growing into that life is tantalizing, but distinctly impossible in the midst of high school and the looming dread of puberty to ruin all your fun. Skins takes on a lot of traditionally adult issues – like drug addiction, mental illness, sexuality, being beaten to death with a baseball bat because a therapist fancies your girlfriend, and it spins them with the intense and improbable emotions that come with being a teenager – it’s a mix that would be utterly toxic in real life (and hell, you probably know some adults who are out here applying those attitudes anyway), but, for the target audience of Skins, it feels sold as almost aspirational. It’s people interacting with the adulthood that’s being dangled in front of you in a way that injects the high levels of drama that seem to swarm around the mere mention of being a teenager. It’s adulthood, through the lens of a teenager, and, to teenagers trying to navigate the transition between the two, it’s kind of perfect.

A highly-touted part of those original seasons was that they had actual teenagers in the writer’s room, which makes perfect sense. Of course teenagers would want to write a life as cool as this – it’s because next to none of them are actually living it, except in fiction. It is all the things that teenagers feel like they should be doing, but that they rarely, if ever, get the chance to do, because, God almighty, who would let a teenager loose on most of the stuff that happens in this show?

Skins was out around the same time as fellow British show The Inbetweeners, which I also watched at the time, and despised. Looking back, though, and having gone back to The Inbetweeners since, I can see exactly why: it’s because it depicted teenage-dom the way it actually was, in all its grubby, insecure, and oppressively awkward glory. What teenager would actually want to watch an accurate reflection of that hellacious landscape? And what teenager wouldn’t, given the chance, take on some as silly and sexy and utterly Skins-y? Here’s to Skins, in all its utterly inaccurate teenage soap-opera dramatics; you might be totally removed from the truth, but damn, you knew how to have fun.

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(header image via Channel 4)