The Lasting Legacy of Skins

2007 was a simpler time. YouTube was only two years old, the first iPhone had just been introduced, Britney Spears shaved her head, Obama was beginning, the final Harry Potter book was released, and Skins was airing in the UK. As a fourteen-year-old in the United States, Skins was not initially on my radar, but it eventually became a large part of my teenage years. It arrived at the perfect moment in time. I was coming of age, YouTube was taking off, and I was outgrowing childhood shows but too young for adult ones.

Whenever I talk about Skins, I’m talking about the UK version, not the dismal American remake that came four years later. It should have been no surprise that Skins simply wouldn’t work in the US because of its risque nature. Gossip Girl (which also premiered in 2007) was seen as too scandalous for American teenage consumption, but while American parents’ outrage over the relatively tame antics of Manhattan’s elite dominated the news, I was logging onto YouTube every Friday after school to watch the new Skins episode. It was hard work to find full episodes, because there was a minimum of five clips for each one. Sometimes a user would upload parts one and two, but stop there. Other times, YouTube would catch on and part one would be taken down while the rest remained.

The show was about a group of teenage friends growing up in Bristol during their sixth-form years. It would focus on one group of friends for two series (or seasons, for my American brain) and then replace all the characters for the next two series. Each group was considered a “generation”. There’s also Series 7, or Skins Redux, that’s three movie-length episodes about fan-favorite characters, but we don’t talk about those.

Unlike teen shows in the US at the time, Skins had no interest in making everything look pretty. There was a grittiness to the series that brought a realness I was unfamiliar with. There’s a sheen on shows like One Tree Hill that never made the stakes feel high. As often as things went wrong in Tree Hill, North Carolina, (and, boy, did things go wrong), problems were solved in an episode or two and then entirely forgotten. Even a character like Peyton (Hilarie Burton), who experienced extreme traumas that included her adoptive mother’s death, her birth mother’s death, a school shooting, a kidnapping, and more, she moved through the show as if none of these things had any lasting impact on her life. Skins had its own extreme moments, but the characters felt grounded. We saw them cope with the highs and lows of their lives. It may not seem like a big deal, but something as simple as watching characters wear the same outfits or articles of clothing made it feel more realistic. They lived in homes that looked like mine, went to a school that felt like it could have been in my neighborhood, and I knew kids like them.

In particular, I grew attached to Naomi (Lily Loveless) and Emily (Kathryn Prescott) from Series 3 + 4. On the surface, Naomi was independent, headstrong, and rebellious. She wanted to go into politics and make a real difference in the world, but deep down she was shy and very concerned with what people thought of her. Emily was quiet and used to being in the shadow of her more outgoing twin sister Katie (Megan Prescott). She was fiercely loyal to her friends and more brave than people expected her to be. From the beginning of their series, Emily is so obviously enamored of Naomi. Their relationship began slowly, with Naomi unusually cautious and Emily unusually brave. As a young gay teen who didn’t yet have the words to explain my own emotions, watching them work through their feelings was nothing short of revelatory. This wasn’t cheap, ratings-grab representation like The O.C. These were main characters, authentic dialogue, and quietly life-changing for many people. I imagine the portrayal of Maxxie (Mitch Hewer) in the First Generation was just as influential, but I felt much closer to Naomi and Emily.

Whenever I think of Skins, I think back to Naomi’s episode in Series 3. She is running for class president against Cook (Jack O’Connell), and as the episode progresses she becomes closer to Emily. The two decide to blow off some stress by going to the countryside to one of Emily’s favorite places. They swim in the lake, smoke some weed, and relax as the sun sets. One thing leads to another and they have sex. As the morning comes around, Naomi, more terrified of what the world thinks about her than she’s willing to admit, leaves their campsite and runs away. Emily wakes up as Naomi is halfway down the road and yells after her that she knows how scared Naomi is, but that she should be brave and let herself want Emily. “Be brave and want me back” will forever be a perfect summation of teenage love to me. Filled to the brim with feelings and love, but terrified to take that first meaningful leap.

I often think back to being sixteen and trying to make sense of my own queerness and how much of that self-disocvery was online. Back in 2007, internet forums were a lifeline; a connection to people far and wide through the shared appreciation for a subset of pop culture. My sister came out as gay before I did and introduced me to a lesbian forum, one that I checked daily because I “wanted to be a good ally for my sister.” In actuality, I was looking for someone who felt like me in some way. My sister and the neighbors down the street were the only queer people I knew in real life and I was nothing like them. It’s so isolating to feel adrift in your own body, lacking the vocabulary to explain what you’re feeling, but knowing that something just isn’t right. 

What a beautiful bait-and-switch Skins was. Some of the show’s earliest adverts were a glossy edit of the main characters at a raucous party. No glimpse of plot or depth, simply billing itself as a party show. Those tuning in to see the wild antics of today’s youth were instead met with much more nuance. The all-out party thrown by First Generation character Chris (Joe Dempsie) was punctuated with the realization that his mother had left him for good. I don’t believe teens were tuning in to see the “scandalous” parties or the drugs or the sex. I think they tuned in because the show had a finger on the pulse of life as a teen in 2007. For many, myself included, it was a first real, genuine look at mental illness. The show covered heavy topics in a way that wasn’t a preachy after-school special or skimming along just above the surface. It covered anorexia, depression, homosexuality at odds with religion, teen pregnancy, PTSD, substance abuse, dysfunctional families, and so much more. It was angsty, exultant, confusing teenage life. 

I went back on YouTube to see if there were any remnants of how I used to watch Skins. I tried searching “sniks,” aka Skins backward, one of the ways people used to get around copyright back then. Turns out I didn’t need to bother. The episodes have been uploaded in their entirety without any attempt to hide them. I’ve gone back and watched a few of the scenes I remember fondly, and it almost feels wrong to see it in high definition. In my mind, the show will always be kind of fuzzy. It should exist in a small, pixely YouTube window, viewed only from my uncomfortable wooden chair on my clunky desktop computer in the home I grew up in.

– Tina Kakadelis

Good Wickedry Event

This piece is part of a co-commission between Make It in Brixton and T A P E Collective. Read more about T A P E Collective in our interview with the founders here.

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