Recently I read an article which stated that Skins was simply a ‘glorification’ of mental illness, and that it was the job of every viewer, past and present, to inform people of the contrary, ugly ‘truth’. After reading halfway down the page, I stopped, feeling rather disappointed at such an incredibly shallow assessment of the cult TV show.
Our generation grew up on Skins, and there had never been something quite like it before on television. The diversity of characters in the first two series was a breath of fresh air.
Tony the British ‘stud’ (if there ever was), was best friends with Sid, the sweet and sensitive ‘nice-guy’ who had incredibly low self-esteem. It was the most unlikely bromance, but it worked, and it was hopeful.
Then there was Maxxie, a gay, talented dancer, who graced our screens with confidence and warmth. Of course we can’t forget Anwar, Maxxie’s best mate, immature, lovable, and the son of a “45-year old Pakistani woman”, who, we might remember, sent him on a school holiday to Russia with a package labelled: ‘bad mood comfy jim-jams’.
The mental pressures their friendship endured throughout the series, with conflicting ideologies of Anwar’s Islamic upbringing and Maxxie’s sexuality, taught us to love regardless, and its triumph in the end was terrifically heart-warming.
Then we had the girls, who were all just as unlikely friends. Michelle, or “nips” as Tony called her, was the ‘hot girl’ of the year, who, believe it or not, had far more going for her than just her “nips”.
Jal, her best-friend since pre-school, was an accomplished clarinet player, and her ‘no-bullshit’ policy kept all the boys in check. It was Cassie, the ‘new girl ‘on the scene, who they scooped up under their wing.
Cassie was smart and other-worldly, but she was also incredibly tortured, struggling with a severe lack of confidence and ongoing anorexia. Her place in the group, as she saw it, allowed her to share her burdens, and it gave others an insight into her suffering. She was no longer invisible, people cared, and they wanted to help.
Finally, there was Chris. A sensitive subject for many who swore by the first series. Chris was my favourite, he was chirpy and optimistic in the face of all life could throw at him. But ultimately, he was a lost soul, having lost his brother earlier in life, and having gotten so deep into the world of drug abuse that no-one could pull him out. His death shook us all. His story was a tragedy.
The first two series of Skins achieved an essential balance. Characters had an attractive side, and an unattractive side, and you were equally aware of both. Anyone who has actually watched Skins will know that the panoramic shots of house parties did not define the show.
Cassie was a bubbly, bright girl, but equally her anorexia was something that the show never shied away from representing, and it was glamourized in an incredibly self-conscious way. What I mean by that is, she was a character who deluded herself, but not the viewer, who could see her disorder for what it really was.
When we meet Cassie, she has just been discharged from hospital after an off-screen suicide attempt. We identify with her from the very beginning as being mentally ill, and it is always a part of her character, as she perpetually battles with food. Her visits in and out of rehab clinics, the pains Sid goes through to try and ‘save’ her from herself, they were defining parts of her character too, alongside the “wows” and the googly eyes.
Chris, amid all the pills and jokes, was incredibly depressed. He suffered severe abandonment issues, and, far from glamorized, his death at the hands of drugs shook an entire nation. His funeral was a wake-up call to every British teen who had such a blasé attitude to whatever chemical they let flow through their body. His ‘glory wall’ of pills became an irksome memorial, as we watched the whole cast, distraught, stand at the top of the hill overlooking his coffin.
Even the adults were far from ‘glamorized’. Most of them were local English comedians playing incredibly flawed and imperfect parents. With the likes of strict Scotsman Peter Capaldi, eccentric cowboy Bill Bailey and eternal blasphemer Harry Enfield – the parents were more bonkers than the kids.
Joking aside, many of them detrimentally failed their children, over-looking the mental illnesses their children were suffering with, day in and day out.
The real problem, when it comes to accusations of ‘glamorization’, is the gaze we choose to apply to these programs. The damaging consequences of mental illness are there in Skins, they are blaringly obvious.
Skins was arguably a tragicomedy, it had to be watchable and uplifting, but it also had to be real when dealing with such sensitive issues.
It is, of course, down to individual opinion at the end of the day. I choose to see the pretty and the ugly, whilst others may choose only to see the former, because ultimately, it’s easier.
We want to see the glamour in these young people, but this glamour will always be jaded by the reality of mental illness and drug abuse.
The care-free, pill-popping Chris was never a model to look up to, he was a vital warning. A warning to us all about coping with mental illnesses such as depression.
His death was the definitive tragedy of the first two series, and it dispelled any sense of ‘glamour’ we might have once attributed to his character, and the story-line as a whole.