I interrupt your regular schedule of art history geek wet dreams to bring you something completely different. I would like to discuss TV, and since it’s my blog, I’m going to go ahead and do it. I want to write about my favorite show:
Gossip Girl Mad Men Buffy Skins! In case you don’t know, Skins is a scrappy British upstart dramedy about a group of teenagers living in Bristol. It’s been quite controversial ever since its 2007 premiere on account of the series’s liberal portrayal of teenage sex and drug use. Those are very real issues that are rarely handled with frankness and reality on television (I’m looking at you Gossip Girl), and that’s all well and good, but Skins also addresses something else seldom tackled: mental illness. Oh how I love to talk about mental illness. I’ve watched all four series of Skins, and each generation has a standout headcase. For the sake of relative brevity I’m only going to cover one of them in this post.
Generation 1 (that would the first two series) presents us with the whimsical, ethereal Cassie Ainsworth. I’m completely biased in writing about her because she is nearer and dearer to me than perhaps any character on any show ever. Why? She suffers from anorexia nervosa. Anorexia is hardly ever portrayed on scripted television for the simple reason that it cannot be resolved easily. It takes nothing less than an entire character arc to even begin to show the complexity of the illness. Amazingly, Skins gives us such an arc.
Cassie is a touch farcical in the premiere episode, and it makes sense. When the deadbeat with a heart of gold, Sid, finds her in the kitchen during a party arranging it’s contents, she looks batshit crazy. She is clearly OCD, loopy, and not “all there.” It’s entirely realistic. There comes a point in a life full of illness where some (you know, Cassie and me) resort to magical thinking and childlike tendencies in an attempt to counteract the darkness. Episode one also gives us the first in a heap of little heartbreaking gems. Sid asks Cassie what she would do if her life were out of control, to which she calmly responds, “stop eating until I go to hospital.” While lesser shows would undoubtedly come at the disease from the cultural angle, Skins shows it as the more complicated thing it often is: a maladaptive coping mechanism.
Then comes a truly amazing hour of television: the Cassie-centric episode of series 1. I have to stop myself from lingering over every detail, but basically it follows Cassie through a typical day. It shows how she avoids food, how she tricks the treatment center and her friends into believing she is better, and manages to capture the all the magic and tragedy that is anorexia. One of the most powerful scenes takes place on a bus. Cassie looks around at other passengers eating. I am so impressed that the (male!) writers of Skins were able to catch that feeling of being in a different world from other people – the feeling that you’ll never know what it’s like to look at food normally.
I recently read a fun fact about Cassie’s series 1 episode. Bryan Elsley, the episode’s writer, vehemently refused network attempts to put PSAs for eating disorder hotlines in the commercial breaks. Elsley is emphasizing the character, not writing a “very special episode.”
The rest of the series still finds Cassie struggling, occasionally dropping lines like “I didn’t eat for three days so I could be lovely.” Been there, done that. Series 2, however, is where I was absolutely knocked senseless. Cassie is in recovery, but she is spiraling out of control and in an identity crisis. The post anorexia loss of sense of self is one of the hardest things to live through, and one of the hardest things to make people understand. Near the end of the series, this happens:
I stopped eating and then everyone had to do what I said. That was powerful…I think it was the happiest time of my life. But I had to stop before I died because otherwise it wasn’t fun.
I may or may not be crying. You know what, I’ll let you see for yourself.
Skins could have made Cassie’s struggle all about body image. It could have found her, like I’ve seen other shows do, happy and with no scars in recovery. But instead it told the truth. Anorexia is about so much more than body image, and what follows in recovery is often a very dark place of disillusionment and hatred of the world. So bravo, Skins, bravo.