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MTV's Skins Compared to Shakespeare on NPR

Don't Kill the Messenger: Media vs. Literature

If teens have sex in real life, why can't they on television? The question has already been asked, and the answer is usually "because ad revenues say so." But today Robert Thompson, a professor of culture at Syracuse University, pinned TV and film up against books by asking how is Skins different than explicit sex and adult plot lines in literature.

Well, we could end the argument by saying more kids watch TV than read books, and visuals are more seductive than 11-point New Baskerville font, but we won't. Let's ignore that intrusive point on the grounds that kids have access to pretty much every book ever written. Thompson cites the perennial high school freshman read Romeo and Juliet as a tale with a message unfit for 14-year-olds: two kids kill themselves because they can't be together.

Then he moves to the sexually graphic, masturbation fest of a book Portnoy's Complaint, which probably wasn't on your high school reading list. He read it early (and, just a guess, but probably often) and told NPR today it was transformative for him. Read what he said below.

"When I was about 13, I discovered Philip Roth's novel Portnoy's Complaint. It was considered a dirty book. I read that book and I found it insightful and it helped me think about some things I was thinking about and all the rest of it."

The "insight" he describes could either be masturbation techniques or the culturally relevant divide that separates the highbrow from the low. It's a tossup! But what separates the serious from the smut is rarely agreed upon. I've never seen Skins, but I know its point is to depict teen behavior as realistically as possible with amateur actors, young writers, and cameras rolling. Is it trash or an unappreciated treasure? It's too early to say, but the only thing separating it from Lady Chatterley's Lover — a book the United States Post Office refused to deliver — is time.

Which brings me to this question: will TV, movies, and other visuals seem as harmless as text does today if virtual reality entertainment becomes the norm? Or will attention-grabbing visuals and advertising revenue keep them salacious for years to come?

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