Forget Jersey Shore: MTV is making moves to be the hottest and most scandalous channel out there, with their new show Skins, adapted from the British show by the same name. Hot, young, fresh-faced stars? Check. Lots of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll? Check. Facing huge criticism from the Parents Television Council? Check. They are the new CW, and this is their Gossip Girl. But have they gone too far? MTV is now facing potential charges that their show might fall under the category of child pornography, due to the sexually explicit scenes it features with underage actors. This week, top executives have been scrambling to deal with the potential fallout of this claim, and wondering “who could possibly face criminal prosecution and jail time if the episodes were broadcast without changes.” Taco Bell, Wrigley, GM, and H&R Block have …
… pulled their advertising, and the channel plans to edit the show to remove some of the sexual content in future episodes.
What categorizes child pornography? Any image of a minor participating in sexual activities, with a minor being someone under the age of 18 (in America). It is not, however, inherently illegal for a minor to be shown nude in a film. Thora Birch is one famous actress to have done so, in the 1999 film American Beauty. Because the scene was approved by the California Child Labor Board, and Birch’s parents were on set when the filming occurred, everything was done to insure her comfort and safety. But has Skins taken the same precautions? And would it matter if they had? It’s likely that there’s nothing they could do, short of canceling the show, would make the Parents Television Council happy (as we’ve discussed before). In their original condemnation of the show, the PTC said, “MTV is one of the most widely-viewed cable and satellite networks, not only among older teens but children as well. By producing its own version of Skins – as well as its ongoing glorification of drinking and sex in shows like The Real World – MTV is exposing millions of youngsters to images and content that cannot help but warp their perceptions of life, and encourage negative behavior that youngsters may one day regret.”
Are these charges valid? It would be one thing if Skins was glorifying teens engaging in dangerous activities, and never letting them face the consequences. But if the British version is any indication, that is not the case for this particular television show (for more on the difference between the two versions, check out New York Magazine’s comparison charts). If the American Skins has lost some of the nuance of the critically-acclaimed British version, that’s the fault of MTV and the new showrunners. In the British Skins, teens may have sex and do drugs, but they tend to participate in these activities out of interest in experimentation, not addiction. They have negligent parents and hard home lives. The show depicts actual adolescent issues without the melodrama associated with soap operas; abortion, anorexia, and the confusion of youth are featured either occasionally or prominently. Critics are not condemning the American Skins across the board; Jessica Bennett of Newsweek wrote that it, “may be the most realistic show on television.”
Of course, there are still the dissenters. Professor of law at NYU Amy M. Adler says that “There are times when I look at mainstream culture and think it is skirting up against the edge of child pornography law.” There are times when I look at the controversy over television shoes for teens and wonder how much of it stems from our feelings and worries about teen sexuality, and how much actually comes from our desire to protect them. We’re more scared than protective of our teenagers, and maybe it’s time those two impulses switch places.