Could a youth-oriented network be sexually exploiting kids? The original series, imported from England, was hailed for its unflinching look at modern teenage issues like drug addiction and sexual experimentation. But the racy content doesn't translate as easily to the U.S., especially when it's being portrayed by underage actors. One upcoming episode under fire reportedly features a character's backside during a plot line that focuses on his temporary erectile problem. The character is played by a 17 year old.
The plot line and nudity are in conflict with the Federal Child Pornography Prevention Act. Filmmakers are very familiar with federal statutes that went into effect in 1996, but television executives less so. The federal law prohibits not just underage nudity, but the use of sexually explicit body doubles representing actors under 18. The laws have been met with opposition from those who fear censorship, but they're also responsible for safeguarding minors who may not be able to protect their own interests under pressure from an uncompromising industry.
"The basic definition of child pornography is a photo or a film of a child under 18 engaging in sexual conduct," NYU law professor Amy Adler told Salon last year. "Sexual conduct can mean a range of things, including actual sex acts but it also means lascivious exhibition of the genitals. That in turn is a standard that is open to interpretation by courts and has been interpreted broadly at times."
Before the measure, child actors were largely demanded to see a shrink to confirm they could handle disturbing content they were about to partake in. But rarely did it disqualify them from taking on a racy role. Sexuality seemed to be just another part of maturing in the spotlight. While the novice actors on "Skins," the youngest of whom is 15, are the first TV stars to be embroiled in a child pornography debate, several young film stars have been dealing with it for years. Jodie Foster played a prostitute at 12. Brooke Shields starred in Louis Malle's "Pretty Baby" at the same age. Historically, young actors have proven their chops with sexually provocative performances verging on disturbing. When Dakota Fanning acted out a rape scene in her movie "HoundDog," Foster cheered on Fanning's performance as a means to an end: "It was a wonderful movie for her and it's setting her up to not be a Disney bimbo," Foster told Entertainment Weekly. But you have to wonder if it's the only way to be taken seriously as a kid. "Skins" is looking for the same critical acclaim here that it got oversees. But does taking a "real" look at teenagers have to compromise child pornography laws? A brief history of film would say yes.
Consider the following list of movies featuring underaged actors in questionable situations. Many of the performances made break-out stars of regular kids. But is that enough of a payoff?