“Skins” boss Bryan Elsley talks Tea, Tony and Naomily

AE: Correct in the sense that it echos the stories young lesbians shared with you?
BE
: Right. No one I’ve spoken to, in all the years I’ve been writing, even when I was writing Naomily — I’ve never met a lesbian who said, “You know, I’ve never, ever considered sleeping with a man. I’ve never slept with a man. I’d never consider doing that.” If we think back on our own teenage sexual experiences, so many of them are confusing and wholly unsatisfying.

Probably at the heart of the Tea controversy is my belief as a writer that you should never allow characters to act in a codified way. Or in a correct way. You shouldn’t adhere to black and white social or political ideas. In a way, that sort of makes me naughty.

AE: Yes, but in another way, it really worked well for you in the Naomily storyline. If you had applied rigid social constructs to their characters, it would have never been as resonant or as satisfying. One of the things people always appreciated about Naomi and Emily is that they are lesbian characters who weren’t subjected to a lesbian storyline. Ironically, that’s what makes Tea so difficult.
BE:
Yes. And, of course, the Naomily story took on its own life, and I wasn’t the only person who wrote it. But really, that story was a massive function of Lily [Loveless] and Kat [Prescott]. The people who contributed most to that story were Lily and Kat, rather than the writers, in my view anyway. There was such an incredible chemistry between those two, and the writers just fed off it.

AE: One objection I’ve heard a lot is that you’re exploring sexual fluidity with Tea, but you didn’t do it with Maxxie, whom Tea is based on.
BE:
I never rehearsed sexual fluidity with Maxxie in series one of UK Skins, and the reason for that, honestly, is that I didn’t think of it. Young Maxxie was barely in the first series. If I’m completely honest, I invented a gay character and did nothing with him for an entire season. And even Mitch will tell you that he felt a little bit bored. As to the accusation that I didn’t allow for Maxxie, that is true.

AE: But you explored it with Tony.
BE:
Yes, Tony did have a little sexual fluidity.

There are lots of areas I want to improve, and the main one is that I want my gay characters to be written by young, gay people. Not by me. That, to me, is a big aspiration for me. I would love for Tea’s story to be written by a young gay woman next season. On the UK show there’s no writer over the age of 25 for the sixth season of UK Skins.

AE: When you were writing Tea were you aware of this really horrible pattern on American TV where teenage characters go through a “lesbian-phase” and always end up with men? It’s probably the most rage-inducing trope in the book for lesbian viewers because it perpetuates the long-held stereotype that lesbians just haven’t found the right man yet.
BE:
Was I aware of that strong tendency on American television? No, not really. Am I aware of that as a strand of storytelling and an easy way to deal with lesbians? Yes. Do I think my story falls into that stereotype? No, I don’t. But I can’t tell people how to respond to my story. I do understand that some people feel I have adhered to that stereotype, but I don’t think I have. But I also understand that when people feel something, they feel it. I do understand, but I don’t think the story is traveling along that path.

AE: Is Betty coming back?
BE:
You know, I never introduce a character into the show unless I mean to make them play. She’s there for a reason.

AE: That’s good because a person could argue that Tea’s female love interest is a peripheral character you can just drop in and out at your leisure, but her male love interest — if I can call Tony that — is integral to the cast.
BE:
Well, of course I would completely assert my right to drop any character at any time I like.

AE: Of course. [Laughing] If I know anything about Skins writers it’s that you guys can kill anyone you want!
BE:
[Laughing] Yes. But as for Betty, she and Tea are both very important to me, and I think they’ll both be important to future writers.

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