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Sex and Sexism and “Skins”

Sex, Sexism, and “Skins” by Mia Fontaine at the Ms. blog

MTV, you’ve come a long way baby.

In six short years you’ve gone from pimpin’ rides to pimpin’ girls, starting with the recent premiere of Skins, a remake of the hit British program by the same name. Immediately labeled “the most dangerous show for teens,” by the Parents Television Counsel and lambasted for gratuitous sex and drug use, what was seen as most controversial was the employment of underage actors. Given that the show includes implied fellatio and sexual assault, simulated masturbation and half-naked teens having sex, MTV potentially violated child-pornography laws.

Without minimizing the above accusations, what shocked me, however–and should shock everyone–was the show’s flagrant and unaddressed sexism. And I’m not talking garden-variety sexism, I’m talking a show that’s glaringly sexist in truly alarming ways.

Episode One, for instance, centers around Tony’s efforts to get his best friend, the virgin Stanley, laid. His brilliant plan? Borderline date rape. In MTV teen lingo, “get some girl ‘recaucusly spliffed. In her confused state she comes to believe how–momentarily of course–you’re [Stanley] attractive and then … she bangs your brains out!” For the lucky girl, Tony’s girlfriend Michelle nominates Cadie, recently released from a psych ward and described on the Skins’ website as “the most dysfunctional girl ever to attend a high school.”

Not that Cadie minds. Using sex like wampum, she accepts the plan for Stanley to, “dope me into outer space and then bang my brains out.” Is it me, or does this smack of prostitution? Sleeping with someone for drugs cuts the cash out of the equation but not the principle. And if Cadie plays the prostitute, Tony and Michelle play her pimps. Worse, because Michelle is another girl, MTV promotes sexism by all genders. By treating Cadie in a stereotypically male way–a sex object–the message is sent to girls to objectify other girls for male gratification.

Perhaps Michelle’s willingness to devalue Cadie as a human being shouldn’t surprise us, given her utter subservience to Tony. Despite his belittling nicknaming for her–Nips, because of her “funny nipples”–she continues to see him, and when she does weakly protest the name he patronizingly tells her to “get used to it kid.” As if someone appointed him both nipple expert and sage, able to predict a lifetime of nipple shame. Forget worrying over breast size: Now girls are being taught to scrutinize their nipples as well. (It’s worth noting that the Skins website describes Michelle as gorgeous and clever. Note to self: MTV defines clever as someone who sleeps with a partner who continuously degrades her).

Another example of the show commodifying young women and encouraging them to use sex to curry favors comes in the second episode, in which the character Tea is asked by her father to go on a date with the son of a prospective business partner.

What is this, the Middle Ages? Aren’t we beyond children-as-chattel eras in which daughters do their father’s bidding? True, he asks her twice if she’s comfortable with it, and reminds her she doesn’t have to fool around with the boy (albeit saying “have to” implies the possibility for it). Nonetheless, he tells her not to mention the date to her mother, possibly because Mom would have found it problematic that he used their daughter like a pawn to facilitate a business transaction.

I doubt many people took note of this, however, because Tea’s father is the only remotely sympathetic parent on the show. Tony and Stanley’s fathers are crass and irate, and the show’s mothers, aside from serving food and babysitting, are without real roles or voices. Had Tea’s father been a jerk, his request might have raised eyebrows; instead, his affability disguised the fact that, like Cadie being used for Stanley’s sexual gain, Tea was used for Daddy’s professional gain.

If MTV’s looking for edgy, edgy can be done responsibly and respectably. Pierced, tattooed and chain-smoking, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo’s Lisbeth Salander is as edgy and sexual as they come, yet she’s subservient to no one and stands up for her beliefs. Given Lisbeth’s propensity for justice, I’d love to see what she’d do to the brains behind a show like Skins.

If you want to see this show, be quick about it: Skins might not be around for long. The New York Post reported that it’s in danger of cancellation because of low ratings and fleeing advertisers. I just hope the fleeing viewers are as disturbed about the sexism as the underage sex.

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