SKINS (UK): REPRESENTATION OF RELIGION IN THE BRITISH YOUTH

Skins was a British teen drama that aired on E4 from 2007 to 2013. It followed the lives of a group of teenagers as they prepared for their A-Levels in the city of Bristol. In the first two series of the show, we get an insight of the daily life of the group composed of teens from various backgrounds as they struggle with addiction, sexuality and above all, their place in society. They have issues with drugs, over-partying and finding a balance in their quest for growth.

Skins depicts remarkably well the life of a teenager as they go through various struggles, as well as the presence, or rather the lack of influence of religions over the life of teenagers. There are not many references or even a character that is overtly representative of the Christian faith in the series. When we get a peek of their home lives, we immediately sense that religion does not have influence in the various households we enter. There is a clear disinterest in showing the Christian faith which is part of the British culture as if it were already given that it is part of the characters’ identity. To be completely fair, Skins is not a show about religion, but a show about identity and the construction of identity in teenagers. Thus, we can question the importance of religion in the construction of identity.

Yet, one of the characters, namely Anwar (Dev Patel), is the exception in Skins. Anwar is British of Asian descent. His parents are from Pakistan and he was raised in a Muslim household. The show took a different approach from being indifferent to religion when it comes to constructing the character of Anwar. The young man is a fundamental part of his group of friends where he seems to be the funny guy of the group with a tendency to party hard. When we look at his character, we cannot say that as an individual he feels rejected or isolated because of his beliefs. He is like any other of his friends, shares the same struggles in his social life and, he has the ability to fit in without ever leaving the audience questioning his uprising or his identity as a young British teenager. Anwar’s background is pretty much the standard Muslim upbringing. He claims to pray five times a day and fear Allah. Yet, when out with his friends, Anwar is a different beast that uses drugs and alcohol to have fun. He even has pre-marital sex, so whatever he does, he is depicted as having a fragmented identity, one facet that he shows to his family, the other which he displays when he is in social context with his friends. There is a separation between Anwar the Muslim and Anwar the teenager.

Anwar praying after a party. Skins 1×02 ©E4

We ultimately feel that the screenwriters for this television series decided to go for a neutral approach towards the depiction of Islam in British youth. With Anwar, we are confronted to the challenge of the second- and third-generation immigrants that decide to practice the faith and the customs from their parents’ culture in a setting that does not feel compatible with their values. Anwar is a character that many young British Muslims can relate to. They feel stuck in-between cultures in an environment that promotes integration in a society that is very different from what their cultural heritage is. Anwar is pretty much torn when it comes to his faith.

The screenwriters of the series paired him with Maxxie (Mitch Hewer), who is his best friend. Maxxie is gay and this becomes a topic of discomfort with Anwar. Anwar is not depicted as having problems with homosexuality as such, but he finds it incompatible with his faith without ever questioning it. We find there a character whose beliefs have been instilled by his family, and he represents fairly well the reality of many young people who take their religions for granted as to not upset their family. In the last episode of the first series called “Maxxie and Anwar”, we are shown a bust-up between the two best friends as Maxxie grows frustrated with Anwar’s hypocrisy towards his faith and ultimately, his friends. Anwar’s split identity is put into the spotlight as he is not backing down and accepting the fact that his best friend can be gay. During one scene, Anwar’s birthday party, Anwar’s father asks about Maxxie’s presence whom he really likes. Maxxie has decided to not attend the party as long as Anwar does not overcome his blatant hypocrisy. Finding it difficult to admit to his father that his best friend is gay, Maxxie helps Anwar out by saying it himself. There follows a scene of tolerance where Anwar’s father admits that he does not understand homosexuality but then again, he will seek the help of God in the hope that one day he will be able to. But he will never discriminate anyone over their sexual orientation he says.

Maxxie’s drawing of his friendship with Anwar. Skins 1×06 ©E4

 This was a very important stance taken by the screenwriters. In their series in which they depicted the struggle of young British Muslims, they decided to go with the moderate approach of Islam. It is a bold choice as the opinion of British Muslims regarding the legality of homosexuality is pretty damning, as per a poll led by ICM RESEARCH in 2016 which revealed that 52% of British Muslims disagreed with the legality of homosexuality whereas only 18% agreed with the legality of homosexuality. So even though the screenwriters went for a moderate and optimistic depiction of Islam in the United Kingdom in the last episode of the series, we should not be misled to think that it is an accurate representation of the Muslim community in Britain. Furthermore, Anwar in the series does not face discrimination except for one episode where the class is on a school trip to Russia as Anwar is discriminated against at the airport when the customs officers decide to proceed to a body search on the suspicion that he is a terrorist. This happens far from Britain, therefore it does not represent the general opinion of British people on Muslims, yet it toys with the general perception and discrimination Muslims face in Europe.

Nonetheless, keeping in mind that this series might not depict an accurate representation of Islam, the character of Anwar still accurately depicts the reality of second-generation immigrants in the United Kingdom, especially the reality of young Muslims in the United Kingdom. The topic of hypocrisy raised by the screenwriters is an important one that deserved to be talked about. The series has done really well in talking about an issue that many young Muslims face: being completely out of touch with their faith that they need to practice anyway to please their parents. Outside their household, however, the rules just fall apart as they seem to embrace their youth without being affected by their faith.  We also need to be careful as the depiction of Anwar does not represent the general Muslim youth. Anwar is a stance taken over Muslim representation as we have a character that was raised in a middle-class family and whose social circle consists in non-Muslim friends and acquaintances.

Skins did a really great job at tackling the issues and struggles Muslim British youths could face growing in a particular setting that is not representative of the whole Muslim community. By taking the approach of representing moderate Muslims in this series, the screenwriters produced a reality that many could relate to. Despite its apparent flaws in its attempt to represent religion in a teen drama, especially in terms of accuracy, Skins brilliantly overcame the challenge of not overdoing the topic of Religion in order to relate to its audience.

Erdem Ozgunay.

Cover photo: Skins ©E4

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