The kids are alright
US pressure groups are up in arms over the tv show Skins. But why the moral panic? Teenagers are no more likely to be brainwashed by it than they are by shows about teen mothers, or films about romantic vampires, says Harriet Walker
SOUND the alarm! Lock up your daughters! Hide the remote control behind bullet-proof plexiglass and tell the kids to get back to their prayers; there's nothing to see here.
The outrage and kerfuffle sparked in America last week upon the airing of teen drama Skins, a series originally shown on Channel 4 in 2007 and subsequently remade for US audiences, was nothing short of hysteria.
It was described by the Parents Television Council as “the most dangerous television show for children that we have ever seen”. Five days after it aired, advertisers, the fast-food chain Taco Bell, withdrew their support, stating that some scenes did “not match with its vision” of what teen entertainment ought to be. Execs at MTV, the channel which broadcast Skins, are concerned that elements of the show might contravene federal child pornography statutes.
The puritans might have been purse-lipped at the sight of a 17- year-old's bare bottom running down a road, some recreational drug use or a recurring erectile dysfunction joke, but their wards certainly weren't. The first episode of Skins drew in viewing figures of 3.3 million, and broke the record for a new show in the 18-35 demographic — a tricksy internet and smartphone-obsessed age bracket that television moguls are desperate to drag back to the sofa.
One of MTV's other hero shows in the US at the moment is entitled Teen Mom — the premiere of Teen Mom 2 earlier this month sucked in 3.6 million viewers. The show, which follows the trials and travails of teenage mothers, has been credited in the American press as a factor in the recent decline in US teen pregnancy rates. “No pamphlet or public service ad is more likely to encourage birth control than these MTV tableaus of maternal boredom, fatigue and loneliness,” said the New York Times last week.
These two television fables highlight the divide in American teen values — the schism between entertainment and moralising. There's no doubt that two minutes of Teen Mom is enough to convince you not to have a child with a 16-year-old called Tyson who is more in love with his truck than with you. But does it really follow that after two minutes of Skins, you'll be shagging the boy next door and rubbing weedkiller into your gums?
“Young people aren't silly,” says Simon Blake, of the Brook Advisory Service, a sexual health advice centre for teenagers. “They won't do what they see on TV. These programmes are key as conversation starters, and it's our responsibility to answer the questions they raise.”
But it seems to be an American tactic to simply shut down these conversations before they begin, so rigid are the moral codes spattered across so large and diverse a country.
The cries to pull Skins, despite (or perhaps because of ) its popularity among its target audience is a knee-jerk shutdown in communications, like the spoilsport who fast-forwards the innocent mucky bit in an otherwise anodyne rom-com, and, in its more sinister incarnation, the Arkansas supermarket policy that led to the covering up of the image of Elton John, David Furnish and their baby on the cover of weekly gossip mag US Weekly “to protect young shoppers”.
American absolutism means that their cultural handle on sex veers from ignorant to hypocritical, but rarely settles at normal or compassionate.
“The abstinence movement in the US is something I absolutely detest,” says sex expert Tracey Cox. “If you look at the campaigns, they're presented in terms of ‘would you want a bite from an apple that somebody else has bitten?'
Girls are described as sluts if they so much as kiss someone.”
Yet one of the biggest teen phenomena of recent years has been the Twilight saga of books and now films. Written by Mormon and abstinence evangelist Stephenie Meyer, they tell the story of Bella, a human, and Edward, a vampire, who spend a lot of time fizzing away next to each other but insist on getting married - at 18 and 107 respectively - before they let things go any further The explanation is based on Edward's 19th-century sensibilities and the danger that his phenomenal physical strength could hurt Bella should they bump uglies before she, too, is turned into one of the undead. It may be contrived, but not half as complex as some other American value systems.
“The downside of this,” continues Cox, “is that if you're a teenager who goes further than you're ‘supposed' to — and who doesn't, because you're pretty much a walking erection at that age? — they think they've done the most terrible, awful thing. And that's when they think they might as well continue down that road and get coerced into doing much worse.”
The fear in some quarters over a programme showing experimental sex and drug use belies an ingrained suspicion of youth itself; 60 years ago, these were the people complaining about Elvis's pelvis — and nobody was scarred by that.
And there has been similar outcry over music videos and TV appearances by the likes of Lady Gaga and Rihanna recently — but that has come from this side of the Atlantic; the Yanks don't seem to care about explicit music videos.
There is, of course, the fact that the actors in Skins are teenagers themselves, and this is what the child pornography accusations seek to address. But there is very little nudity in Skins, there is a smidgen of heavy petting but nothing that constitutes pornography, underage or otherwise. Presumably, no-one on the Parents Television Council has ever seen any real porn — they'd probably combust if they did.
The public face of American adolescence is Miley Cyrus, High School Musical and Disney's Mouseketeers. These teen stars are beloved of four to 10 year-olds. Their own demographic aren't interested in them, because they're more polystyrene than person.
“It's good to have a bit of diversity on television,” continues Simon Blake. “Teenagers have questions and they want to talk about things. Shows like Skins are a brilliant opportunity to engage them.
“I spoke to some teenagers the other day who said they were bored by it and had turned it off,” he adds. “Some thought it was silly, some think it's boring. They're not as obsessed as we like to think.”
And not as obsessed, perhaps, as we are. Music mogul Mike Stock (of Aitken and Waterman fame) last summer made a pronouncement that the raunch culture of the industry was over-sexing our children.
“[Parents] were quite happy to put their kids in front of Hannah Montana,” he said last August, “but recently, Miley Cyrus [who plays kids' character Montana] has shown off her maturing body.”
But children become teenagers, and you can't stop them. “It's a myth that teenagers are in more danger now,” says Cox. “Teens are better equipped than ever; there has never been a better time to do your growing up.”
“People think it didn't used to be like this,” adds Simon Blake. “But these issues didn't come along at the same time as Cheryl Cole. It was just as difficult when I was young, the only difference was that it was Adam Ant and Right Said Fred who were on my television screen.”
You need only look to some teen icons who have grown up to get a sense of how skewed the system is. Remember the furore of Britney's much-discussed virginity and her seamless segue from teen queen and sexy schoolgirl to psycho shaven-headed trailer trash: this, the abstinence lobby would have you believe, is what happens to girls who “do it”.
There's a logical disconnect going on, and it's much more sinister than simply addressing the issue of teenagers having sex straight on. “The pop group JLS launched a condom range with us recently,” explains Blake, “and young people loved it. They seemed thrilled that high-profile people were taking them seriously.
And no matter whether you're 13 or 30, you always worry about sex.” Ultimately, there is one sure-fire way to dampen the flames of teen lust, and that's not to make a big deal about it.
There is, after all, nothing less sexy than adult-sanctioned sex.