MTV's Skins Has Parents On Edge

A new MTV show has come under fire from parent groups and advertisers alike. The series called "Skins" features teenage sex, drug use and nudity, as it follows the lives of a group of teens. But should parents allow their children to watch the program and is there a lesson to be drawn from the controversial show? In this week's parenting conversation, regular contributor Dani Tucker, mother and blogger Stefanie Mullen and Robert Thompson, professor of television and culture at Syracuse University and a father of teenagers, share their thoughts and give some valuable advice.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

The latest in our month-long series of short essays for Black History Month is coming up.

But, first, you heard us talking earlier about television and commercials. Some sponsors of the MTV show called "Skins" have pulled their ads from that show because some say there's just too much skin. The show follows a group of teenagers as they navigate sex, life, sex, school, sex, relationships and sex. There's partying, there's drug use and there's nudity. It's definitely not "Father Knows Best."

And if it's not obvious already, this is not an appropriate topic for all listeners. So if you're concerned that this might not be appropriate for you, this might be a good time to step away for a few minutes. So now we're going to play a short clip from "Skins." Some of the kids are watching a workout video and the discussion turns to, what a surprise, sex. A question is posed of Stanley, who is a virgin, but he wants his friends to believe that he isn't.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SKINS")

Unidentified Woman #1: So, Stanley, you and Cadie get into any positions like that?

DANIEL FLAHERTY: (As Stanley) That's an interesting question. I would like to say that our lovemaking...

Woman #1: Sex.

FLAHERTY: Yeah. That, that's what I meant, sex.

Woman #1: Banging.

FLAHERTY: Right. It's, you know, it's kind of traditional.

BRITNE OLDFORD: (As Cadie) It was crazy.

FLAHERTY: Crazy in a kind of traditional way, you know, kind of tame for the...

OLDFORD: Except for when he put me in the pile driver. I thought I was going to pass out. I've never done anything like that before.

FLAHERTY: Yeah. Except for that. I forgot about that part.

MARTIN: Now, a group calling themselves the Parents Television Council, called this program the most dangerous show for children we have ever seen and some companies have already pulled their ads for the show. Reviews have been mixed. The show's ratings have been dropping. But it does raise the question of how do we talk to our kids about what they're seeing on TV, especially when they have ways to access it that we might not even know about?

So we've called on some parents to talk about it, Dani Tucker, our regular moms contributor and the mother of two teenagers. Also with us, blogger Stefanie Mullen, a mother of two teenagers, as well, and author of the blog Ooph.com. She has launched an online campaign against this program. And also with us, Robert Thompson, professor of television and culture at Syracuse University. He's also a dad of teenagers. And he's with us from member station WAER. Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

ROBERT THOMPSON: Thank you.

STEFANIE MULLEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, obviously, I think, you know, we're all going to bring our own personal feelings and background to this conversation as well as, you know, the scholarship that Professor Thompson brings. But we've all seen episodes of the program. So if I can, I just wanted to ask each of you your opinion of it. And Dani, I'll start with you.

DANI TUCKER: My son and I watched it together and I thought the acting was a little over the top. But I wasn't surprised by the content. I'm not one of those parents that are in denial. You know, notice I never told my son he couldn't watch it. I just told him, let's talk about it.

MARTIN: Was he watching it anyway, apart from watching it with you?

TUCKER: Yeah, he watched it and had told me, you know, when I asked him about it he said he thought it was horrible. He said he thought that, you know, because it wasn't, like he said, like, I watch "Jersey Shore," mom, but that's a reality show. Those people are real.

MARTIN: Sort of.

TUCKER: Yeah. Right. Exactly. But he said, with this one it was definitely, you know, overacted. He said, that's not typical average high school life. Nobody's smoking marijuana in the bathroom and not getting caught. I mean, you know, so he thought it was a little over the top.

MARTIN: Stefanie, what about you? Have you let your kids watch it? And what do you think of it? What do they think of it?

MULLEN: I have not let my kids watch it. I've discussed it with them and I'm a parent who doesn't bury my head in the sand. I'm very aware of what goes on. I know the drug issues, the sex issues and all the things. But I found the show to be reckless. And I found it to have no point. I mean, like Dani said, she watched it with her son, and I think that's a great thing.

However, I don't think a lot of people are doing that and that's what makes this so reckless. And it doesn't offer real consequences for these teens' behaviors. It actually glamorizes their behaviors. And I've never blocked a show in my entire life, in my almost 16 years now of parenting. And I just felt this one was worthy of just being taken out of our lives.

MARTIN: And what do the kids say about that?

MULLEN: I've asked them their opinions. They've had friends who've watched it and so forth and neither one of them actually have any interest in watching it. They both said it's either stupid or, you know, just other words. And the teens that I have spoken to are in agreement with Dani's son. They say the same thing. It's not that good. It doesn't keep them excited or enticed to come back for more 'cause it's just so over the top and ridiculous.

MARTIN: Now, Professor Thompson, a couple of questions for you. First of all, this is being portrayed as a very groundbreaking television experience. And in fact, there was some concern that it could even be viewed as child pornography because of the level of nudity in the program by actors who are below 18. In fact, it is sometimes the case that producers will hire actors who are legal adults who look young to precisely move around that. So the first question I have for you, is this in fact groundbreaking in whatever direction? What is it distinctive television?

THOMPSON: There was a version of this that played on the BBC America for quite some time, so it's been playing on people's cable systems and satellite systems for a while. This is getting attention now because it's the American version. The nudity is actually pretty understated although, the big difference is it is, in fact, sometimes with actors who are, in fact, under age, and that is an unusual kind of situation.

One of the things that's making people nervous about this is when you watch "Jersey Shore," there's all these people behaving badly. But I think most people, including kids, watch this with a sense of mockery. They're making fun of these people. Whereas, these characters are actually - and I've seen the first four episodes, as somebody who grew up in a "Father Knows Best"-like family, they made me very squarely and uncomfortable. But by the time I got through the fourth episode I was kind of beginning to like these characters.

And I think that's maybe what makes people most nervous about this is it isn't just a stupid reality show. It actually shows these people as three dimensional, complex and at times, kind of interesting characters.

MARTIN: Can I ask you your personal opinion, Professor Thompson, to put on all your hats here, one as a parent and also as a person who studies this and as a viewer? What - can I just ask you your personal opinion?

THOMPSON: Yeah. My daughter watches virtually no TV, not because I tell her she can't, she just doesn't watch it, never has and isn't interested. So fortunately, I haven't had to actually encounter drawing a line in the sand about this, or for that matter any other show. However, I have to say as a parent of a 15-year-old, I would probably opt to try not to allow her to watch this program. On the other hand, as a rational human being, I am really uncomfortable with this idea of equating culture with a public health issue.

When I was 14, I was forced by my public school to read "Romeo and Juliet," which was about two kids of my age who kill themselves in the end because mom and dad won't let them be together. I suppose that's maybe not a great story to be playing to kids, especially of that age. Now, maybe it's because Shakespeare's language so distances them and these kinds of shows are closer to the kind of actual kids. But I always get nervous with this idea that we have to limit what kids can watch when it comes to storytelling and reading and all the rest of it because somehow they're going to become what they watch.

I'm a baby boomer. We had no sex on TV - marital, premarital or otherwise. And we should've grown up by that theory to become the most Norman Rockwell-esque generation in history. We should've all been "Father Knows Best" and all that kind of thing, and that's the exact opposite of what this generation did. They completely deconstructed the old notion of quote, unquote "family values."

MARTIN: That's Robert Thompson. He's professor of television and culture at Syracuse University and a dad. We're talking about controversial television shows aimed at teenagers. Also with us, our regular moms Dani Tucker and Stefanie Mullen, who is also a blogger. She blogs at Ooph.com.

Stefanie you have the deepest concern of the group about the program. Why don't you talk a little bit more about that? And also I want to talk also about other programming aimed at kids, because there's another issue I want to raise too, which is the fact that adults are so regularly portrayed as ridiculous and as not having anything useful to say to young people in shows that aren't as controversial.

You know, Stefanie, why don't you - you just heard Professor Thompson say, you know what? He doesn't like it. He doesn't particularly think it's that great but he sort of hesitates at the notion that television on its own creates a cultural problem, or is a public health problem for kids. You want to pick up the thread there?

MULLEN: I don't think that watching the show is going to make my kids run out and become drug addicts and having sex nonstop. But I'd go back to the fact that it's a very recklessly done show. It looks so appealing whether they show a couple of bad things are not. And the other thing is if you go to their website, one of the things that they have on the website for "Skins," it's called where it went down, and it asks them to leave their mark on where it all happened, browse and share the places where memories were made, post the truth about the biggest parties, heartbreak, friends, sex and every kind of trouble.

And so I think what this show does is it's encouraging the bad behavior. It's not showing bad behavior and saying hey, this is bad behavior, here's the consequences if you behave like that. I mean in the first episode they were under the influence and drove a car into a river and then they all bobbed to the surface smiling. I mean I just don't find anything redeeming about the show, and I actually find it a little bit frightening.

MARTIN: Dani, what about that - the idea that it normalizes behavior, makes it, like this is what you're supposed to do? I mean on the one hand, I mean we look at television and magazines and the effect that we say that they have on girls and their body image. They look at that and they think oh, that's the way I'm supposed to look.

MULLEN: Right.

MARTIN: And what about that? Dani, you think no?

TUCKER: No, I think they're way ahead of us. One of the teens on - I think it was ABC News, when they were talking about it, hit it on the nose. She says that's just really how life is except not to that extreme. I went to that same website, whereitwentdown.com, and a lot of those hits were there long before the American version of "Skins" came out.

So bottom line is these kids, I believe our teenagers are experimenting with drugs, sex and other things and if they are not they know someone that has or they almost done it. But I'm not that frightened of "Skins." Let's put it that way. I think we should really use it as a teaching tool because one thing Stephanie pointed out, it doesn't talk about the consequences. And every adult in the show is an idiot because unless...

THOMPSON: Can I say something about the...

MARTIN: Yeah. Please.

THOMPSON: Oh, I'm sorry. Go ahead.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

TUCKER: No.

MARTIN: Go ahead, Professor Thompson.

THOMPSON: One thing I would bring up is that when you're at that age sometimes you're looking for culture that is in fact going to distance yourself from your parents. You're individuating. You're becoming, you know, your own person. And I keep thinking when I was about 13, I discovered Philip Roth's novel "Portnoy's Complaint." It was considered a dirty book. I read that book and I found it insightful and it helped me think about some things that I was thinking about and all the rest of it. The last thing in the world I would've wanted to do would be to sit down with my mother or my father and talk about what was in "Portnoy's Complaint." A matter of fact, if that would've happened, I'd probably still be in therapy getting...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: ...getting over it. So the question is how much do we try to protect our kids from stuff that could really be giving them quote, unquote "dangerous ideas," and how much do we kind of let them sort of grow up this way? And that is the question I'm not smart enough to answer.

MARTIN: But I see what you're saying. You're saying that every generation of kids wants to have its own language, its own things...

THOMPSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...that make them special, that differentiates them. But what about the fact that adults and so much - not just in this program and programming at kids in general, portrays adults as stupid, unable to affect their lives, you know...

THOMPSON: Right. Well, with comedy, of course, you have to make fun of people in power. Now, if you're somebody as smart as Cosby, you can pull off a comedy about really good hip parents who are also funny. But people like Cosby don't come along very often.

MARTIN: Let me ask you...

THOMPSON: That's really hard to do.

MARTIN: What about "Glee?" It's a network program. It's not on cable, unlike MTV which means it's much more broadly accessible even, and a lot of people like it because it's very Rainbow Coalition. You've got not just lots of not just different races and ethnicity, but lots of different body types. Everybody doesn't look like they just stepped out of the pages of Glamour magazine. On the other hand, there's a lot of sex in there too. So can I just ask your opinions about that?

THOMPSON: In the pilot episode, the head of the glee club, the faculty supervisor, actually plants marijuana on one of the football players as a means to get him to join the glee club.

MARTIN: Okay. Stefanie, what about "Glee?" What do you think?

MULLEN: I wrote a post about the spread that they did - I think it was GQ. It's been a little bit. My brain is kind of scattered.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

MULLEN: But they had these girls from the show, and there was one of the boys as well, posing in the magazine and they were in a high school situation. They were just exuding sex, you know, in the classroom, in the wherever. And I don't love this idea of overstimulating our kids with all of this - this content that, you know, is too big for them frankly, and it's stuff we work as parents at home constantly to help them navigate. And when these shows put it in their face, if you will, it makes our job that much harder.

MARTIN: Dani, what do you think?

TUCKER: I'm just opposite. Put it in their face because let's talk about it, because I remind my kids I used to be a teenager and I used to feel what they feel. And I think one of the biggest problems we have with parents, once we become parents we forget where we came from to get there. So I do that with the kids. My daughter watches "Glee" and we talk about it. I mean yeah, there's sex everywhere but we sit down and talk about it because I'll say to them, hey, Mommy caught when she was 17 doing A, B, C, D, E. That's no secret. Everybody knows that. I don't want them to hit the, oh my God, I can't talk to Mommy about this. Yes, you can, because Mommy was there. And my parents didn't talk to me about it and I think that was a big drawback.

MARTIN: Stefanie, do you have concerns not just on what is already being portrayed on television but what it could portend? You know, what's the endgame of this? Is it total nudity?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You know, the nudity channel like all the time. And so I don't know whether you can put the genie back in the bottle, though, can you?

MULLEN: Obviously, it's our jobs as moms and dads is to protect our kids and we're doing our best on a daily basis. And I feel like this show was kind of a slap in the face of all the hard work we do. And I was mostly concerned because I kind of feel like maybe we fell asleep a little bit, you know, "Teen Mom," "16 And Pregnant." And at least with those shows there is some theory that they're trying to show how difficult it is to be a teen mom. And then this show came about and it woke me up, if you will, and it made me scared because what's next if we as parents don't stand up and say this isn't okay to market to our teens. And my biggest concern is if we don't say you guys can not keep doing this then what is next?

MARTIN: Dani, you have a final thought, then I'll give Professor Thompson the last word.

TUCKER: I too want to protect mine, but more so I want to give them the proper equipment, wisdom-wise, to be able to handle what they're saturated with. I personally don't feel we can necessarily stop everything that's coming in because it's not coming in from TV; it's coming in from the video games. If it's not coming in from the video games, it's coming in from the music. They're getting it from every end and I don't necessarily think we can stop it from every end. So I've got to talk to them about it and equip to make them wise individuals to know how to navigate the seas because they're going to be rough.

MARTIN: Professor Thompson, final thought from you?

THOMPSON: I think this labyrinth and confusing culture that's constantly coming at us, the only defense is that one needs to teach children who they should be and what's right and what's wrong. And then, if you watch "King Lear" and he does horrible things, or you watch "Macbeth" and he does horrible things it doesn't mean that you necessarily are going to go out and do it.

I don't think we can change the way our culture tells stories about each other. We can, however, raise our kids with as much care and concern and compassion as we can. And in the end, that's all we can do.

MARTIN: Robert Thompson is a professor of television and culture at Syracuse University. He was with us from member station WAER. Stefanie Mullen is a mom of two teenagers and author of the blog Ooph.com. She was with us from Indianapolis. And Dani Tucker is one of our regular Moms contributors. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

TUCKER: Thank you.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

MULLEN: Thank you.

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