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

A year ago, when the fourth series of UK Skins was coming to an end, series co-creator Bryan Elsley wrote a scene that would endear him to his lesbian viewers forever — or at least until he made the trip across the Atlantic to roll out an American version of his show.

Naomi and Emily are one of the most beloved lesbian couples of all-time, and Elsley gave us all a happy ending when he wrote Naomi’s series-ending speech in which she confessed that she’d loved Emily from first moment she saw her. Elsley’s reign atop the Honorary Lesbian throne didn’t last, though; when he unleashed Tea Marvelli on US Skins last month, he found himself in hot water. Halfway through the show’s first season, the self-proclaimed lesbian character is having feelings for — and sex with — a guy.

Skins is always in tune with the buzz, and when he found out about his lesbian fanbase’s growing rage, Elsley agreed to chat with me about Tea. Of course, I also managed to sneak in some questions about Naomily and that mythical Skins movie.

AfterEllen.com: I don’t know if you’ve heard or not, but a lot of lesbians are not happy with you.
Bryan Elsley:
I always seem to do this, Heather. I don’t know why. I just really believe that characters in television dramas should do things they’re not supposed to do, rather than what they are supposed to do. Because people doing things they are supposed to do is quite a bit boring. But that always causes a conflict when there is a view about how people are supposed to behave, or a view of how people do behave, things like that. Storytelling and drama just get in a crash at that point. I’ve been thinking about this, and wondering why I didn’t think about it more. But I probably would have done the same thing, I think.

AE: Did you have ever have this kind of response about a character in UK Skins? I can’t think of any, but I wasn’t actively involved in the conversation during the first generation.
BE
: Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I was talking to people about this in the office today. I think it’s a cultural difference between the US and the UK. No one in the UK would care less about this. It wouldn’t matter in the UK. Which, again, is maybe a lack of cultural awareness on my part, possibly. I am becoming aware that people in America are more concerned about these kind of issues than perhaps they are in the UK. And I don’t characterize that as being good or bad. I’m just saying it’s something I possibly overlooked.

AE: Can you talk a little bit about your process for developing Tea? I know you talked to young lesbian women as she began to take shape.
BE
: Like lots of the characters in Skins, Tea is based on a person in my life, someone I have known for a little while. She has given me an insight into some of her experiences. And there’s a very direct correlation between her and Tea. And, of course, Tea was developed in the teen group, both here and in the UK. Especially here, this is a story that I am told often, about a certain degree of flexibility in young people’s sex lives.

I do regret that maybe I didn’t hear as many stories as I could have. I don’t enjoy giving offense to anyone, especially when you’re talking about a minority group, like the gay community, that has had to fight for equality. When I was younger, gay people had to fight to be heard. I don’t enjoy offending that sensibility. I am respectful of it. I’ve had a lot of gay friends who have had to struggle to be taken seriously.

AE: It’s not always the case, but often times women who view themselves as sexually fluid label themselves as bisexual. Do you look back and wonder if maybe you should have given Tea that label instead of lesbian?
BE:
Tea definitely identifies as a lesbian. In fact, it is really interesting to me that so many of the young people I spoke to definitively characterized themselves as lesbians and they report that for various reasons they’ve all had sexual relationships with men. I think that possibly what happens, with both men and women, is that there is a process so many people go through whereby there sexuality is in question, often into adulthood. Often times in adulthood, people get more entrenched in their position.

AE: I wrote about that a little yesterday. I wondered if possibly some adult lesbians, who are secure in their sexuality and have settled on a label, might be projecting that secure sense of self onto Tea. But I heard back from a lot of our readers who said, “No. I am a teenager and I am a lesbian and I would never consider having a sexual relationship with a guy.” Tea doesn’t resonate with them.
BE:
I completely understand. I’m sure plenty of teenage lesbians would never proceed in this fashion. But I would like to add that I urge people to watch the whole story, because it twists and turns. Tea does characterize herself as a lesbian. And I’d like to point out that these two sexual experiences she’s had with Tony have been deeply unpleasant. They have not worked for her in any way. And they have only caused her trouble. In Tea’s relationship with Tony, I am characterizing someone who is behaving badly, not well. Her motives are complicated.

AE: My sense with Tea, and I hope I’m right, is that she lives in an insular high school world. She knows she is attracted to women. She identifies as a lesbian. But like she said in her episode, she doesn’t feel like there are any girls in her world who match up to her. Tony challenges her because his arrogance appeals to her, and it confuses her because she’s never met anyone who shares her confidence.
BE:
Yes, that’s it exactly. It’s about how someone could confuse an intellectual connection with someone, or a spiritual connection with someone, or even a dislike of someone for sexual attraction. That’s what’s being portrayed here. She keeps saying, “I feel something for him” without ever defining what that is. And I don’t want to give the story away, but she’s making a mistake. She’s mistaking the vibe she feels for him as sexual attraction.

I have a personal belief in this, and Skins does in some way reflect my personal belief. My belief is that, in matters of sex, as long as what you engage in is not illegal or abusive, no one should have an opinion about it. It’s something I believe rather profoundly. This story, in so many ways, is about how Tea finds her feet, and how Tea remembers who she is. I feel that the story lands in the correct way.

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