Monday, May 21, 2012

This post rated C for content

A recent article in U.S. News and World Report proposes ratings for books. The suggestion seems to come from a place of compromise, a place that says something like, "Don't want to ban books? All right, let's give parents some information to help them be involved in their kids' and teens' reading decisions."

I've previously expressed my reasons for thinking that parents' influence over their kids' reading shouldn't be absolute. Parents do get involved, though, for all kinds of reasons. And that's why I really don't like the idea of reducing a book's "mature content" to a letter or two. Who would get to make that decision, and what would the criteria be?

The article seems largely focused on profanity, which is easily quantifiable (if a bit futile; I'm sorry, parents, but your kids probably do know those words). In fact, a researcher did quantify it: according to the article, she  "checked for profanity in five different categories: George Carlin's 'Seven Dirty Words,' sexual words, excretory words, 'strong others' (bastard, bitch) and 'mild others' (hell, damn)." But what about context? Does an F-bomb become more okay if there's, say, an actual bomb? Who decides?

And what about all those other "mature" topics? Do drugs mean a higher rating, and if so, which drugs?  Does it make a difference if the tale turns out to be cautionary? What about violence? What about sexual violence? What about sex? Does it matter if it's casual or committed, protected or unprotected, gay or straight? Again, who decides?

Once a label is on a book (or a movie, or anything else), it's very hard to see past it, even if you're not entirely sure how it got there. Well-intentioned though the suggestion might be, I'm going to make another, borrowing a phrase heard most recently from John Green: use your words. Talk to your kids about what they're reading. Talk to a librarian or a bookseller, who may also suggest that you talk to your kids. Their brains probably have more mature content than you think.


  1. Given how blatantly people disregard the current rating systems (be it for movies or video games or whathaveyou), I can't say I'm too concerned. Hell, my parents are the ones who _gave_ me my first books about corpses and mass death events, on the basis of them being educational.

    As for curse words, my argument can probably be summed up as: Arbitrariness is Arbitrary, don't make me bust out my linguistics degree.

  2. @fuzzybluemonkey, to be honest, I don't honestly think it's very likely to happen. What bothers me a little more is the outlook that the degrees of what's objectionable are the same for everyone; seems pretty clear they aren't!

  3. It's great that people are talking about this. It seems crazy to me that we censor words (that kids know and use in the playground anyway) and are much hazier when it comes to violence.

    In the UK, film censors suggest that children under 15 can't see a hint of breast or loving sex, but can watch people killing each other. Bonkers!!

  4. @Jo, yes. It seems odd that sex has become this thing we're all afraid to let children know about when violence is in most cases so much scarier.