Effy Stonem Skins illustration Lily Blakely
Illustration: Lily Blakely
Entertainment

The Enduring Appeal of Effy Stonem, the 'Skins' Character Who Keeps On Giving

Why is a character from 'Skins', a show specifically targeted at British millennials of the late-2000s, resonating with millions of teens today?
LB
illustrated by Lily Blakely
December 21, 2020, 1:03pm

Before Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness”, there was Effy Stonem. Played by Kaya Scodelario, the Skins side-character-turned-protagonist became an instant pop culture icon in the late 2000s – the Patron Saint of teenage girls, typically found smoking behind the science block and communicating mostly through eye contact.

Effy is an enigma, a train-wreck, a femme fatale whose allure is inherently bound up in her own undoing; Marissa Cooper if she had a sense of humour and partied in Stokes Croft. Her magnetism comes from the conflict between how she really feels (deeply) and how she acts (as though she doesn’t feel a thing) – a façade recognisable to the audience, but very few characters in the show.

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Her appearance is either prim in a school uniform, or dishevelled in fishnets; her behaviour either “cool, detached” or “screaming in the middle of a dual carriageway”; her dialogue either Kat Slater (“I’m officially off the rails”) or Laura Palmer ("Sometimes I think I was born backwards”). In short: she is melodramatic and completely unrealistic, but that was the point. Effy is a characterisation of how teenage girls feel, not how they actually are.

For a show that hasn’t been on air for almost a decade, Skins – well, the first four seasons at least – continues to occupy the teenage imagination thanks to its distinct character-driven format and the fact it was the first show to truly reflect both the volume (high!) and nature (enthusiastic!) of underage partying in the UK. Drugs, sex, poverty, racism, divorce, domestic abuse, eating disorders, heartbreak – Skins came at these issues through the eyes of a teenager, with the emotional lens of an adult, taking each one seriously but respecting its audience enough to entertain rather than moralise. While pretty much every character still holds up, there’s something about Effy that continues to resonate more than most other characters.

Though she was in Skins from the very beginning, Effy had absolutely no dialogue until episode eight – and even then she mostly just called her older brother Tony a “wanker” (pronounced, importantly: wan-kahh). Before then, we mostly saw her sitting silently in the background, or sneaking in and out of the house alone, not knowing where she’d been or where she was going (though the implication was: somewhere she shouldn’t have been).

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In one early episode, Tony’s on-and-off girlfriend Michelle asks her, “Why don’t you speak, Effy? Does nobody ask you why? It must mean something…” Even when she was the focal point of the show, Effy remained stoic, speaking less than those around her, but usually communicating more.

In retrospect, it was a genius move, laying the foundation for Effy to supersede Tony in season three as the mysterious and Machiavellian lead. Of course, that could easily have gone tits up – when The O.C. primed Kaitlin Cooper to replace Marissa after her death, the dynamic of the show fell apart completely. However, it became clear very quickly that Effy wasn’t just a substitute chaos agent. She was one of the most gripping characters of the entire Skins franchise, and it seems her appeal has only snowballed since.

A compilation of “effy stonem being done with everyone for five minutes” uploaded to YouTube in May of this year has over a million views. An older compilation, set to Avril Lavinge’s angst-anthem “Nobody’s Home”, has over 2 million. On TikTok, the hashtag #effystonem currently has 106.6M views. More specific iterations – #effystonemedit, #effystonemskins and #effystonemmakeup, to choose a few – have also racked up serious numbers.

The most popular sound – a clip of her saying “I'm officially off the rails, you should try it” that cuts into The Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” – has been used over 26,000 times, playing over videos with captions ranging from “14 year old girls after going to school in yesterday’s makeup and replacing breakfast with a stolen cig from their parents” to “me forgetting to take my estrogen” to “POV: im about to take a shit”.

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Though they’re self-aware with it, either taking the piss out of the obviously overblown nature of most teenage grievances or underselling them, the majority of these videos come from Gen Z girls with dark eye-makeup, alt clothing and a cigarette hanging miserably out the side of their mouth. In other words: people who see a bit of themselves in Effy.

On the one hand, it’s quite funny that a character in a show targeted at British millennials, specifically between the years 2007 and 2010, resonates so strongly with an international audience of teens today (in one episode, Effy and her friend Pandora have to shift a load of “spliff” at a club playing Pendulum’s “Tarantula”). On the other hand, it’s not surprising. Besides Euphoria, there are no US or UK-made TV shows dedicated to portraying the lives of teenagers in such hedonistic terms, and there rarely have been. Even shows like Degrassi, Gossip Girl and Riverdale, which have been considered “explicit”, if not particularly deep, in their depictions of teen sex and drug use, often come at these subjects through a moralising lens.

The vast majority of teen dramas also skew conservative and wealthy, so the chances are, if you have seen a character go “off the rails”, it was a “poor little rich girl” trope. By contrast, Effy is average – a part of the thriving but recognisable English middle-class. She goes to a sixth form college, lives in an identikit terraced-house-with-bay-windows, and dresses in high street clothes (in one episode she wears a Sid and Nancy vest from Topshop that I, for my sins, also owned). 

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Skins in general has held up because, even in its most surreal moments (of which there were many), it was able to communicate the distressing and exhilarating experience of being young in such a relatable way. This blurring of the real and the surreal to deal with deep psychological issues is exactly what Euphoria gets right in a modern context, and what I May Destroy You – while it isn’t focused on teenagers – employed so devastatingly in its final episode.

In that sense, Effy is a vessel for the whole spirit of Skins. Both stern and dreamy, she embodies the show’s initial catchphrase: fuck it – a blunt acceptance of circumstances which, as a young person, you’re powerless to do anything about, as well as the element of fantasy that often kicks in to convey the inarticulable. In a video analysis of Effy’s style, the narrator says “her fashion is the embodiment of the rebellion, beauty and mystery that the Skins franchise holds”.

A severely depressed and traumatised character (let’s not forget she became the lead after watching Tony get hit by a bus), Effy spends most of her arc running away from her troubles by creating more immediate ones. It’s an ill-advisable but understandable act of agency; a way of coping through control rather than passivity. Instead of lashing out or doing nothing, she turns her violence inward. All things considered, it’s not at all surprising that a generation raised on Juice WRLD and Lil Peep would gravitate towards her 

Ultimately, Skins reflected the ambient melodrama of puberty better than any other show of its time. It never needed to be realistic, and neither did Effy. She just had to reflect teenagers the way they see themselves.

@emmaggarland