What’s the Story With the Problematic Portrayals in “Skins”

Mini (Freya Mavor), Liv (Laya Lewis), Alo (Will Merrick) and Nick (Sean Teale) in "Skins"

Believe it or not, the first episode of Skins (UK) aired in 2007. It has since been named one of the best teen drama series of all time and continues to attract a dedicated cult following. The characters are likable, the stories are relatable, and even when they are not, they somehow still capture the invincibility and fragility of youth. 

We have a lot of positive things to say about Skins and often praise it for its era-defining qualities. The trouble is, the show captures the era so successfully that it also relays some of the more problematic attitudes of the time. We have no intention of abandoning the show, but it is worth engaging critically with some of the more troubling portrayals of delicate issues on the show. 

Let’s start with Cassie Ainsworth. Cassie is a ditzy yet adorable teenage girl suffering from an eating disorder. Her storyline has some powerful moments but overall, Cassie’s anorexia is glamorized to the extent that she became a “thinspiration” icon on Tumblr. This means that teenage girls have actually been known to quote Cassie to motivate themselves to lose weight. It’s difficult not to point some of the blame at the writers, who wrote Cassie as a character whose beauty was so bound up with her fragility.

Similarly, Effy’s mental health problems added to her “fit, mysterious” charm. The guys around her fell in love with her aloof attitude and her battle with mental health issues was too often treated as something exotic and exciting. Even during her manic episodes, the show portrayed her as a beautiful, romantic character who “loved too much” to have a steady handle on things.

Finally, let’s not forget Daniel Kaluuya’s appearance in season one. Kaluuya has since starred in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a social thriller about racism in the U.S. This could not be further from his character in Skins, a cartoonish stereotype who wears a basketball t-shirt and uses ridiculous slang. How could a show that got so many things right get something so horribly wrong?

In many ways, Skins successfully portrays what it is like to be a middle-class teenager growing up in the south of the UK but if you are rewatching the show in 2020, be wary of the problematic portrayals of minorities and mental health.