Friday, December 30, 2011

Skins 3x07 (a very retrospective review)

The first episode of Skins I saw was 3x07 and it made me fall in love with the show because I was so impressed by the portrayal of a teenager with diagnosed autism and mental health problems. I've written about the episode a thousand times before, but it occurred to me that what makes it so progressive comes from the very structure of Skins.

First, the episode about JJ has to be from JJ's perspective and show his home life and how he acts when he's by himself, because that's how Skins episodes work by definition. And second, because it takes place pretty late in the season and the audience has seen the episodes about different characters, we understand that everyone has problems.

I hate when people with autism are portrayed as a different species. It's not just insulting to us, but to humanity in general. Talking about how people with autism don't read social cues or understand other people's feelings just makes you sound like you don't know any people without autism. It puts people without autism on a pedestal and ignores what's interesting about all people--our weird, unique failures and perversities and charms.

To me JJ's episode is about stigma. Whether or not that was intended, it can't not come across that way. After all, there's this stereotype that Skins is about kids having parties where they trash houses (there was even a media panic that it was encouraging British kids to have "Skins parties" where they tried to emulate the ones on the show). And there are several instances of Skins characters breaking things when they're angry or high or drunk. Sometimes this is a problem in the character's life, but it's not medicalized--except when it's JJ.

The episode starts with JJ sitting in his room immediately after getting really upset and breaking everything. Unlike most Skins characters who do this, he's actually worried about the fact that he's done this. Unlike every other character who trashes a room in the show, JJ decides that he needs to see his doctor because of what he just did. The doctor, without much thought, prescribes him more medication. JJ, without much thought, obediently takes it.

Later in the episode JJ says something to his friend Cook about not being into drugs. Cook replies that JJ takes a lot of drugs, and JJ gets so mad that he sets out to sabotage Cook for what he said. The truth is that what Cook said is technically true--they both take a lot of drugs--while actually being completely offensive and false.

The difference between JJ and Cook's drug use isn't that one takes drugs and the other doesn't--that isn't the case--but that Cook has a choice about what he puts into his body. His drugs may mess him up more, but he takes them for pleasure and he takes them when he feels like it. JJ has been taught that everything about him needs treatment, and that he should always conform to what other people say is good for him.

We know Cook and the other characters well enough to know that many of them do things that are bad for them, and make choices that hurt other people, while still being really confident in who they are. They have compasses, even though they are shitty ones. JJ is a more thoughtful and sensitive person, but he has no compass. He's afraid to not do what he's told.

When JJ talks to Effy in his episode, she says, "I'm officially off the rails"--she's not joyful about it, but she is a little pleased with herself. It's a cool thing to say. JJ replies that he can't go off the rails because it would upset his mother. Effy is fucked up but she has the freedom to brag about her fucked-up-ness and go as deep into it as she wants. JJ has a disability label so he's held to a higher standard; any signs of fucked-up-ness are a symptom and a potential tragedy that needs to be immediately controlled.

The heart of the episode, when we really learn who JJ is, is when he's talking to Emily about what he would do if he was "normal." He'd have sex! He'd eat whatever he wanted! He'd tell people exactly what he thought! Everyone would respect him!

I can't imagine watching this without wondering what Cook and Effy did to earn all these rights JJ apparently doesn't deserve. Why are they normal? Sure, JJ is different, we can tell he's different, but there's no bad thing he's done that a "normal" character hasn't done too.

Later, Emily and JJ are talking about how Emily's sister won't accept Emily being gay. Emily reassures JJ, who accidentally outed her, that Katie loves her and will get over it. JJ suggests that Katie is "locked on" and Emily agrees with the phrase.

When I first saw the episode I thought that "locked on" was a common British term for...something, I couldn't tell exactly what. After I watched more of the show, I realized that it was a euphemism JJ and his friends use for his particular emotional states. At one point they use it for a meltdown, and in another episode JJ is just getting overexcited and yelling about something when his friend sees the need to correct his behavior--"JJ, you're getting locked on."

I don't think that JJ was written well after series 3, or even in some episodes in series 3 where he serves as a stereotypical "awkward" character who provides comic relief and inappropriate exposition. But his episode is perfect, especially this moment. He realizes that Katie, a very "normal" person, can be described as "locked on." There doesn't need to be a whole separate vocabulary for the things JJ does.

Series 3 does a great job showing how JJ's friends and acquaintances see him as being different (and sometimes lesser) and how he sees himself that way. This is a really serious part of how some disabled kids grow up and yet you hardly ever see it when disabled kids have friends on TV. Their friends either treat them "like everyone else" even when they're clearly different, or take care of them with saintly patience. Mentally disabled people are often portrayed as not knowing we're different, even as we inconvenience and hurt other people with our differentness. Skins shows all the complications for a disabled kid who has friends, but is separate from them--and because of how developed all the characters are, we know just how shoddy the reasons for that separation are, and how unfair it is.

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