We weren’t going to write about Skins‘ Season Five because we’d heard that the show was homo-free and we only have room in our budget/calendars to recap programs chock-full of homosexual glory. Skins usually IS that program, and it’s been consistently popular with queers like us for its frank, unsparing and realistic portrayal of the homogay lifestyle. Both UK Generations and the current US incarnation feature at least one gay character — Maxxie, Naomi, Emily, Tea.
This season, eager fans saw the cast photo and assumed one of these humans was a lesbian:
— and were disappointed when Dakota Blue Richards (the girl in the black in the middle, obviously), who plays the not-lesbian, told the press that her character was, you know, not a lesbian.
However! Show creators did hint that “one of the characters in the next generation is very much in the tradition of Skins portrayal of sexuality, but you won’t quite know what or who she is for quite a while.”
So. Two weeks ago last Monday I accidentally downloaded G3-s1 (Skins UK) instead of s1-e3 (Skins MTV) and accidentally started watching it and before I knew it I was typing stuff on my keyboard, deciding to forego the US Skins recap altogether!
Skins dedicates each episode to one character or two (premieres and finales occasionally are attributed to “everyone”) and Season Five’s premiere episode featured Franky Fitzgerald.
Franky’s profile on the Skins website cites “Joan of Arc” as Franky’s “Religious View” and names The Little Prince and The Clockwork Orange, among others, as her favorite books. Franky sometimes communicates with a tiny wooden doll who stars in videos Franky films in her room. Franky is very precise about things. She’s the adopted daughter of the cherub/cheery Jeff and Geoff, her “Dads” who met in the army and married in camouflage. She has really nice skin.
Oh yeah and also, she’s genderqueer.
Genderqueer: A difficult/contentious term to define, or a catch-all term for gender identities falling outside the gender binary or transcending traditional meanings of “man” and “woman.” Reflective of the understanding that sex and gender are separable aspects of a human person. Many genderqueers do not define their identity by referencing the binary gender system, some consider themselves to be a third gender, others identify as genderless or androgynous or simply transgressive or otherwise misgendered within the dominant binary system.
In the weeks leading up to Season Five’s premiere, some readers were harassing Crystal and I about our refusal to recap the show, insisting that Franky’s genderqueerness and homosexual fathers were enough gay to warrant a recap.
“What, she has short hair and wears ties or something but the producers aren’t gutsy enough to make her masculine-of-center AND gay?” I thought, imagining that this alleged genderqueerdom would ring about as true as Ashley’s goth phase on Degrassi.
But I’d forgotten that Skins doesn’t play us like that. More recently, a reader wrote me personally:
Unless I am way off base (I don’t believe I am), this character is genderqueer. Frankie may not understand it yet. I had no clue for 26 years. I appreciate the feelings of emptiness and utter loneliness. I’ve seen those looks on people’s faces for years. I know what it’s like to be called a ‘thing.’ People can’t place you and their confusion turns to anger.
Skins always goes for the jugular, steering its narrative into the deepest cesspools of teenage desire and fear, the murky hideaways where adolescence is at its most wretched and hard-fought.
Skins never aims to glamorize anything or anyone, which is the real reason The Parents Television Council’s warnings fall on deaf ears. Skins characters aren’t the impossibly clear-skinned, perfectly-haired, ingeniously-dressed, stick-thin, perfect-jawed plastics on 90210 — they look more like people we know. (Except Effy. Nobody knows anyone who looks like Effy.)
More importantly, the kids in Skins are usually fucked, alienated and often quite sad, though occasionally gifted with transcendent moments of reckless, often drug/sex-induced happiness.
But we don’t want to be the kids on Skins. Why would we pattern our behavior after a group of kids who — in addition to sporting an alarmingly high mortality rate — overdose, go to jail, get beaten up, fail out of school, get sick, get institutionalized, wreck cars, become homeless, get robbed, get hit by cars/paralyzed and repeatedly screw up relationships, friendships and families?
That’s not glamour — that’s hard knocks, and if there’s one thing all the Skins kids have in common it’s this sense that they are HARDENED, that things have not been, in one way or another, handed to them on a silver platter.
Viewers want to be like the characters on 90210 or Gossip Girl; they want those shimmery, easy lives of effortless beauty and impossible, free-floating wealth where dysfunction is always more foreplay than disaster. Viewers envy Gossip Girls’s consequence-free world of framed college degrees and dark, sexy furniture.
We want to be Kelly Taylor or Blair Waldorf.
But we’re already Emily Fitch.
We’re already Franky Fitzgerald.
It’s just that nobody cared enough to talk about us before now.
Episode 1: Franky
The fifth season of Skins begins with that strikingly intimate shot of a kid who’s already awake, but still in bed — you know the one —
… while the loose janky chords of The Strange Boy’s “Be Brave” start thumping from the corners of Franky’s lucid, determined consciousness as she wakes and begins her morning routine in the room she’s just moved into. Her sartorial game is determinedly dapper, like a Newsie getting dressed for dinner.
Franky is very little, with small bones and dark, nervous eyes, impeccably clear skin and hair slicked back to reveal her adorkably earnest ears and the wide, clear slope of her face. She’s the kind of kid that adults realize is going to be really fucking badass one day and therefore approach as though she’s a tiny, endangered bird in need of temporary supervision. Franky seems to prefer that everyone just speak their minds, rather than keeping all the ugly stuff to themselves.
Franky, face already defensively perturbed, is advised by her Dads to “try and fit in” but it’s clear, from her outfit, that she’s never gonna fit in. She’s heading out into the cruel cruel world where rascally schoolboys call her a lezzer and try to beat her up, which leads to Franky hijacking a motorized wheelchair and ultimately crashing directly into her first day of school, at which point Mini, the Queen Bee, gaffs, “Wow. Has the circus come to town or what?”
For Franky it kinda has, however — insofar as her first day of school is like a twisted Horror Funhouse of nightmarish Worst First Day Fears, beginning with being thrust immediately into gym class and, sans gym clothes, given dirty white shorts and a Frankie Says Relax t-shirt from the Lost & Found, and proceeding gamely forward into her first awkward locker room scene.
As Franky weaves through the rows of caustic-looking clones in safe, pastel bra-and-panties sets, I felt my own stomach tighten and twist, remembering how terrifying it was to undress in front of other girls when I was 15 or 16 — and how I’d therefore beeline for the handicapped stall when nobody was looking, where I could change without anyone asking why I wore boxer shorts or noticing how severely I did not need a bra. Like I’d accidentally put my clothes on while peeing or something, I couldn’t help it, I was like Superman.
The girls laugh at Franky, especially when they spot what seems to me to be a perfect pair of boyshorts with “Oh my god what the hell are those?” Mini takes it a step further, seizing an opportunity to exercise her social power — “Are you like in fancy dress, or is that like an actual like, choice?”
Here’s the thing about Franky — I don’t think it’s an actual like, choice. This is just who she is.
Later in the episode when she attempts wearing makeup and more feminine clothing to please her new friends, she ultimately breaks down during an English presentation — “I tried today and now I feel kind of less like me, and I’m not exactly over the moon about being me in the first place, but now I think I kinda like it less when I’m trying NOT to be me. Because I just wanna like, be.”
Franky Meets Other People
The three girls who ‘befriend’ Franky in the first episode are nothing like Franky — or at least it seems that way at first.
Mini and Liv have that look of suburban high school girls who have been popular for so long that their souls have become just another accessory. Grace tags along airily, saying absent/sweet/silly things while remaining inexorably bound to Mini’s haughty hip; a partnership perhaps maintained by the unstoppable inertia of adolescence. Perhaps Mini feels Grace’s child-like goodness could go either way, perhaps she and Liv feel almost generous for allowing Grace to be a teammate rather than a target.
The girls wear bright, trendy clothing and flash obnoxious gummy smiles. Mini’s jewelry clanks with each of her loose strides and Mini is senselessly, compulsively mean, and threatened – clearly – by Franky. There is no room in Mini’s head for a girl like Franky, so it’s easier to call her a dyke and keep Franky’s stubborn subscription to non-conformity far away from Mini’s world of fast-handed boyfriends and magazines about how teenagers should do their hair.
They are the anti-Franky, but something about her appeals to them. Do they want to change her or look at her? And is it relevant that Franky refuses to engage in being submissive, and that even though she is almost constantly fighting weakness, she meets them eye-to-eye?
Because when Franky’s gender non-conformity is challenged, Franky, despite emotional tugs from all corners of the room, maintains an inspiring certainty about who she is and what she feels comfortable wearing.
In the grand tradition of gender transgressors past, Franky’s new friends submit her to The Makeover. You know The Makeover, right? Yes. It begins in a flurry of Shiloh Panic and usually ends with a mall montage and a happy customer.
We’re in the mall dressing room and they’ve already gotten Franky to try eyeliner and lipstick. Mini’s found a dress Grace describes as a “punky butterfly” and they’ve got Franky in it. You can almost feel Franky’s itchy discomfort over being given clothes truly meant for an entirely different human; like when you feel, trying clothes on, that it’d be more efficient just to put them on another person’s skin, but you can’t, and so you squeeze your self-conception into them and feel itchy, even if nothing itches.
This is what Franky must wear, though, says Mini. This is what you need to wear to be in my world, where we carry condoms in our hot pink purses and say shocking mean things to each other for sport and we’re all on drugs so what the fuck ever, you know?
The morning after their shopping trip, Franky dips her toes in the water of semi-conformity, applying eye makeup and wearing something a bit more flirty. It’s unclear if she’s compromising with Mini/herself here or if she regularly switches up her style. But the compromise doesn’t fly either: “You can’t come to my soiree like that,” Mini tells her. “It looks like she’s been gang-raped by clowns! What about that gorge dress I got you?” Frankie says it’s not right. Mini wants to know why not.
Although Franky’s pain isn’t even slightly obfuscated by her anger, she’s a feisty little firecracker of a girl and that’s something — it’s like confidence without being confident.
We’re meant to understand that Franky’s been bullied a lot at her old school, but Skins skips the “thank god I got a makeover and can be popular now” trope in favor of something slightly more inspiring: despite everything, despite Mini humiliating Franky in front of the school by pulling up photos from from the facebook-esque site started by Franky’s ex-classmates to shit all over her, despite a lifetime of moments like that one, Franky decides, ultimately, to attend the party, and to do so in the clothes that make her feel comfortable.
But first she stops in a field to smoke a joint in a trenchcoat and shoot a pistol into the prairie, where a mysterious boy finds her and tells her she’s beautiful. I don’t know, it’s Skins. He might just be a figment of her imagination, we’re not sure yet.
Of course Mini is furious at Franky for arriving, especially dressed like THAT. Mini is the Queen of the party and doesn’t appreciate this deviant crasher. “Look at you just standing there like –” Mini begins, but Franky interrupts:
Yeah, nice try. She’s heard all that before. When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose after all, and Mini’s response is fear, mostly. I mean, Mini is vulnerable too, but she covers it up by being mean. Franky is vulnerable but she’s sure-footed in her vulnerability. That’s scary.
Although lesbian slurs are thrust constantly at Franky, she doesn’t confirm or deny anything; when she meets the mystery boy in the field, however, there is a heightened romantic energy not felt in her other scenes. In later episodes, there’s some tension with [SPOILER ALERT] (Mini), but it’s really hard to say and regardless, doesn’t seem pressing thus far.
When Rich and Alo turn to Franky for advice on how to talk to girls (because she’s “like a girl, but not like a girl”) in the second episode, Franky tells them: “I don’t know anything about girls either. I don’t have a Mum or a sister; my experience of girls is mostly being beaten up by them.”
Ultimately one of the most fascinating and progressive aspects of the term “genderqueer” is that it provides a whole swath of previously “undefined” people with a word they can use to describe themselves, which they must do because it makes other people feel safe. Perhaps the labeled person wants also to feel like a Thing, everybody wants to be a Thing.
But at the same time, the word itself evades any definitively consequential definition. It’s kinda rad, really — it’s like a loophole and also a big room for people to run around in. It’s a word for what some people are, but that word offers a lot of room for said people to figure out exactly who they are (or aren’t). I can’t imagine a better thing for a teenager to see than this on their television.
Franky’s episode ends when, after being rejected by Mini; Franky, Rich, Alo and Grace ditch the party in favor of a much better time — some random abandoned swimming pool. It made me think of this song I really like by a band my high school friends were in, called White Flowers.
It’s all about being young and in your underpants, I think, going “over the fence of the senior’s complex to their swimming pool, the perfect view of the night shining bright,” which is maybe a place to start when you’re still small and splashing around, trying to find a place to float.
Skins finds new stories to tell, and the fact that they thought of this one before any angry human demanded representation is perhaps one of the most admirable things this show has ever attempted to do. The space has been queered, ladies and genetleman and otherwise-identified human persons; the water’s warm, dive in.