The sound and fury of “Skins” child porn claims ultimately signify nothing

If you’ve been trolling around the internet the past few days, you probably stumbled upon some serious, screaming accusations being hurled at MTV’s Skins. The ones that screamed “CHILD PORN!” The ones that are being screamed by the ultraconservative Parents Television Council. The ones that forced the show to clip some of its suggestive content. The ones that made advertisers nervous enough to drop out of the show altogether. The ones that are total and complete crap.

The New York Times first reported about how MTV and its parent company Viacom (which is also our parent company, in the interest of full disclosure) were nervous about some upcoming content that involved a 17-year-old actor. The concern came after the PTC declared Skins the “the most dangerous program that has ever been foisted on your children!” (Yes, with an exclamation point.) And then the group called on the chairmen of the U.S. Senate and House Judiciary Committees and the Department of Justice to immediately open an investigation regarding child pornography and exploitation on Skins. Though, please note that calling for an investigation and getting one started are two entirely different things.

The scene causing all the hubbub involves 17-year-old actor Jesse Carere as Chris (third from left below), who gets locked out of his house while naked. I’ve seen the clip in the rough cut screened for the press and can confirm that there is nothing sexual about the situation. It’s not meant to be sexy; in fact it’s rather sad. Those who have seen the UK Skins will recognize it as it as an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the original episode. This is in no way kiddie porn according to the US Department of Justice which defines it as “the visual depiction of a person under the age of 18 engaged in sexually explicit conduct.” Other media sources from Salon to The Daily Beast agree that Skins simply isn’t child porn, period.

Still the mere accusation of child porn has been enough to make national advertisers like Taco Bell, GM, Wrigley, Subway and H&R Block to pull their advertising from the show despite its stellar opening ratings. Some 3.3 million viewers watched last Monday. Now there are plenty of reasons advertisers might be worried about advertising on a show like Skins with its overt sexuality and unapologetic depictions of drug and alcohol use. But child porn is most definitely not one of them.

What is actually more troubling is that an extremely conservative group like the PTC which prides itself on policing “traditional values” could suddenly be wielding so much power over our airwaves. The PTC is like your uptight great uncle who likes to complain about how kids today have no morals and need to get off his lawn. They’re known for firing off press releases every time something that wouldn’t fit perfectly into the primetime lineup of 1957 is shown.

A small sampling of the shows that have earned the PTC’s ire recently include Glee, $h*! My Dad Says, Family Guy, Big Brother, Damages, Gossip Girl and America’s Next Top Model. In the past they’ve been responsible for up to 99.8 percent of all FCC complaints in a given year. The PTC really hated Adam Lambert’s head-in-crotch move at the American Music Awards and really, really hated the Glee Britney Spears episode. Currently there are only three primetime broadcast shows that get their full family-friendly, traditional-values stamp of approval: Minute to Win It, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Undercover Boss.

Certainly, much of this so-called Skins-troversy could have been averted if Skins just used actors of legal age. As is the cast ranges from age 15 to 19 by creator Bryan Elsley’s design. His vision has always been to make a series about teens, by teens, showing teens – and he has replicated that formula in the US version. As Elsley said at the TCA recently:

“Well, it’s just that in the industry I work in, it’s always better to cast actors at the age of the characters that they’re going to play. Seems to me, a very simple principle….These are some of the most talented young actors I’ve ever seen in my life, although most of them had never acted before they came inside the Skins experience. I think a lot of the edge of the show comes from the fact that the actors are tiptoeing their way into the art of performing characters. But at the bottom of it, there’s always an edge of truth, which you simply can’t get around. And that’s why we do it.”

Besides Carere, the other underage actors appear to be James Newman (Tony), Rachel Thevenard (Michelle), Eleanor Zich (Eura – the US Effy equivalent) and Camille Cresencia-Mills (Daisy – the US Jal equivalent). Sofia Black D’elia, who plays lesbian Tea, is over 18. It should be noted that her episode, which airs tonight, has happily not been cut despite its sexual content. 

Some of this sound and fury surrounding Skins is a calculated move by MTV. The marketing for Skins, both in the US and UK, makes it seem like a never-ending party of sex, drugs and more sex. Promos show the cast draped over each other, covered in whip cream, guzzling booze. Quite frankly, it’s actually a turn-off for almost anyone over the age of 18. But what has made Skins more than just Jersey Shore sprung to life is its stories – unvarnished examinations of the teenage experience in all is hedonism and disappointment, confusion and discovery. Skins is an experience, not a joy ride. It’s also classic bait ‘n’ switch. Lure them in with the salaciousness, then stun them with the sagaciousness. In fact, I fear those tuning in for the promise of non-stop titillation will be disappointed.

In the end, what is most upsetting about this supposed controversy and its ensuing fallout is that child pornography is a real and persistent problem. To call a show like Skins, which while it revels in pushing buttons and boundaries does so at the service of its gritty stories, trivializes real child pornography. UNICEF estimates that 1.2 million children worldwide are trafficked each year and 43 percent will be forced into commercial sexual exploitation. That is something to get outraged about. That is something to write press releases about. That is something to demand an investigation from the Department of Justice about. Get mad about that, PTC, not some TV show that dares to say that teenagers use drugs and have sex. You don’t need a TV to see that — just look out the window.

Tags: , , ,