Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Ratings or Censorship: Politics, Social Commentary, and More

Nathan Bransford put up an apparently controversial issue up to vote on his blog today: should children's books be content rated?  If you have an opinion on this matter, please go vote.  As for me, I'm going to delineate my views on the matter right here, right now.  

Disclaimer: I am not a parent.  I do not pretend to know good parenting.  For all we know, I may be a terrible parent when I finally pop those babies.  But not being a parent does not mean I can't have an opinion.  Also, I am legally an adult, so whether or not a ratings system is put in place does not really affect me.  I can buy porn and cigarettes.  It's not like I'm trying to sneak into the library restricted section at Hogwarts.  

Let's be honest.  Rating systems don't work.  They're too subjective.  One person's R is another person's PG-13 is another person's NC-17.  Knowing where we live, the second a parent gets offended by a "wrongly labeled rating," he/she is going to freak out and sue.  Come on, people, this is America where someone can win a lawsuit over too-hot coffee.  It's like the universal solution to life.  Got problems?  File a lawsuit!  Nobody will ever agree to one rating system. There are those psycho over-protective parents, and the ones who practically let their kids smoke weed at the age of 3.  They will never come to a consensus.

Historically, rating has commonly been used for discriminatory purposes.  For example, popular YA author Maureen Johnson wrote the "controversial" novel The Bermudez Triangle in 2005.  It portrayed a homosexual relationship in a positive way.  No graphic sex, nothing.  Yet some mothers saw fit to petition libraries to essentially give it an "adult" rating.  They wanted the book out of the YA section.  Why?  Do people only become homosexual once they turn eighteen?  Is it like the magical age of the disappearing closet door?  So we expect gay teenagers to struggle through their adolescence without any fictional examples of their normalcy?  The message those mothers are sending to other people's children is you're dirty, and your lifestyle is not appropriate.  And they want to foist their opinion of correctness onto the general public.

Beyond that, there are still parents who believe in shielding young children from sex, drugs, and other un-childlike things.  Okay, I get it.  But here's my problem.  Parents seem to hold this notion that they can keep this kind of stuff from kids.  Not to scare the bejeezus out of you, but you can't.  In junior high, at the tender age of eleven, I found used condoms in the hallways, saw drawings of genitals on bathroom walls, bomb threats, nudity, all kinds of profanity, and drug deals right under my nose.  No, I did not attend school in innercity Chicago.  I lived in a small, relatively conservative town, surrounded by cornfields, home of State Farm, upper middle-class people, and poster child for good morals and Americanness.  There's TV, news articles, textbooks, video games, people.  Do you plan on locking your kid in your basement until they're 18?  Home-schooling?  Go for it.  But one day, you're going to have to let them go.

I see this problem all the time.  Parents who don't know how to let their kids learn on their own. There are masses of college students all around me who can't function without their parents. They can't make their own decisions; they're crippled by fear of mistakes.  Hell, if you left them alone, I think they would starve to death.  I think the scarier thing, scarier even than having a nine-year-old accidentally read the word "sex," is having an eighteen-year-old enter the world with no clue as to how vulgar things can be and no idea as to how to deal with it.  It's the sheltered kids who are going out and getting alchol poisoning, because they are finally "free." They can't deal with freedom.  They overdose on it.  Do you want your kid to be that kid?

I was probably eight when I read my first graphic romance novel.  My aunt left it in our house by mistake, and I was curious.  It was one of this 1980's rapey ones where the hero rapes the heroine until she loves him.  I read an excellent novel, When Dad Killed Mom by Julius Lester when I was in sixth grade.  It's exactly what it sounds like.  A father (probably mildly sociopathic) kills his wife, and the two kids learn how to cope with a dead mother and a father going to court for murder.  

I think people have this misconception that humanity is unsalvageably stupid.  Reading a book by an atheist will not make you a devil-worshiper, listening to a speech by our crazy socialist black president (sarcasm) will not transform you into Joseph Stalin, and seeing a picture of a naked person will not make you move to a nudist colony.  I've had socialist teachers (they're both brilliant).  Doesn't make me one.  I've had pregnant teenage friends.  I'm not pregnant.  So I read a rapey romance novel.  I barely understood what was going on when I did.  I couldn't even grasp the concept of sex.  And it has not made me think rape is okay.  When I read Julius Lester's book, it did not make me want to be a murderer, or think homocide is okay, or consider getting a nipple-piercing (as the daughter does).

If you are disturbed by a book, here's the greatest thing: you can close it and never lay eyes on it again.  You run across some profanity?  Stop reading.  Sex scene?  Skip it.  It's a pretty awesome concept.  :-)

So you're a time challenged parent.  Do you really feel the need to check every single book your kid lays hands on?  Do you know how many books I read as a child?  If I had to wait for my parents to pre-read everything, I would have a lot less reading experience.  Are you going to scour their school for everything you deem inappropriate?  Scrub the graffiti off every bathroom you walk into?  Pre-screen every single movie, presume they're not lying to you about what movie they're going to see?  Read their history textbooks for "graphic images" of whipped slaves and starving children?  Interview all of their friends?  Interrogate all of their teachers?  

Tell me.  Are you going to do those things?  Do you think a rating system is going to solve your problem if you are so paranoid that you think one inappropriate novel is going to psychologically ruin your baby, turn him into a delinquent?

I say no to a rating system on books.

PS: You can always use review sites and/or Amazon, and the rest of us won't have to put up with a rating system.  The Internet, guys.  It's a wondrous thing.

Please share your opinion, either in the comments, or in a blog post (link me up, so I can read it!).  I love dissenting views.

(Although, I'll be honest.  If you're hell-bent on rating systems, I won't have changed your mind.  As someone who is a political enthusiast and did grassroots canvassing, I've found that people are notoriously stubborn.  When was the last time you convinced someone that your party was right and theirs was wrong?  Yeah, didn't think so.  Bi-partisanship sounds like a great deal.  I've come to the conclusion that it's a load of crap both parties feed the public, as if we can hope for some kind of compromise.)  


  1. When I was in college, I would have agreed with you. Now that I am a parent, I disagree.

    You'll be amazed at how much you and your views change in the nine months leading up to when you "pop those babies".

    BTW: I've been developing information systems and web content since you were "popped", and I can tell you that individuals' opinions that are posted on Amazon or blogs do not compare with a standardized "content" system.

    Standardization is the key to internet stability and to the value of information.

  2. Well, anonymous, like I said. I am not a parent, nor do I pretend I will feel the same way when I am one. But as of right now, here is my opinion. Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Certainly, as a college student, who is majoring in history and minoring in political science, you should have already begun to appreciate the need for standardizations for a well functioning society.

    Standardizations are critical for peaceful, productive, and advanced societies. Besides, why would ratings or content labels bother you if you plan to ignore them anyway?

    And as for your remarks about ratings not working – What!?

    Although there will always be human errors and subjective decisions, movie ratings have allowed parents to send their children to movie theatres and know that they will not be admitted to rated R movies. And if ratings can be assigned to movies, they can obviously be made for books.

    Whether everyone will agree on the accuracy of the rating is another issue, but standards can be determined. Your points about rating standards being pointless bears no merit.

    Also, from your arguments, I could infer that you think all child related regulations and limitations are pointless. Perhaps the driving age should be left up to children to decide too.

    Based on your invitation for dissention, I’d hoped for at least some thought and an intelligent response/debate regarding the value of standardizations in societies rather than a flippant "here is my opinion, so there!"

    I suggest that you don't invite dissent if you cannot debate, discuss and review the topic with an open mind. Of course, I had my doubts about an intelligent exchange of ideas and views when your post started out by calling would-be-dissenters "paranoid".

    And as of right now, here is my opinion.

  4. Wow, I only meant to say that you don't need to discount my opinion simply because I am not a parent. That's it. But clearly you misconstrued it, so I apologize if I sounded flippant.

    I would love to debate you. I don't think standardizations for something as creative as writing would work. How would you standardize what classifies as "sexual content" for instance? Would it be a scene that vaguely refers to sex? What if the scene cut out right before sex? One person's definition of appropriate is different than another's. Especially when there are so many parenting styles, I think you would agree that what you choose to expose your child to is not the same as what your neighbor would choose.

    You're also suggesting that children should be prevented from reading a certain book because it has an "R" rating. Well, one twelve-year-old might be more mature and advanced than another. Would you suggest
    we bar a certain book from all 12- kids? I imagine authors would have a riot over that one.

    And I definitely invite dissention. Nowhere did I imply that you had to agree with me, or that I would argue with you until you did agree. But you also might understand that as a college student, my response was rather short because I was about to take a shower and go to bed. I have class tomorrow morning, and it's kind of more important to me than writing an essay to your response. :-)

    Thanks for continuing the conversation. Now, I really am going to bed.

  5. I'd add that I can invite dissention without inviting debate. I simply like to hear other people's opinions. It is interesting to me. I like being open-minded. Dissent and debate are not quite the same thing, and generally, I don't even respond to comments. Is it so wrong that I just like reading the comments for pleasure?

  6. I can see the problems of rating. Maybe having symbol rating? For example, on a lot of manga (gets to drop favourite genre into conversation not-so-casually) have symbol rating. Heart = romance. Unicorn = fantasy. Fist = violence. The same for video games. I prefer this to age rating. It means I predominantly skip the heart rated books because I know its not my thing. Age is relative. Symbols aren't.

  7. What a well-thought out post. It's obvious you are really passionate on the subject. Like you, I read plenty of books at a somewhat tender age that most parents might have frowned on, but my parents were just happy that their kids liked to read, no matter what we were reading.

    I lived in Europe for several years, where I didn't have a lot of friends that spoke English. Because of this, I read lots of books, my parents' books and books I got from the library. But hey, my opinion can't count, because I also grew up thinking that nude beaches aren't a big deal, either. ;)

    I'd rather have my nieces learn about sex from reading fiction, like I did, than from movies or the school of hard knocks. I think you hit on a very solid point that you are in a unique position to make; the kids who are the most sheltered are the ones who get into the most trouble in college, whether it's drinking, drugs, sex, or peer pressure.

    Age ratings will never please every parent, since they can be pretty subjective, but I like Yunaleska's symbol example. Content warnings like language and sexuality might be useful-- if anyone could agree on what sexuality really is.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

  8. Icy,

    Have you taken any classes or read any research regarding what the affects can be of exposing young children to sex?

    I wonder why you think a young child is capable of determining when he or she should be exposed to sexual content? I am going out on a limb and say that I doubt you would agree with legalizing sex with minors even when a child says they want it?

    An extreme comparison? Perhaps. But no more extreme than your insinuating that parental guidance equates to over-protecting-parents who ultimately lead their naive children to destruction when they are finally freed unawares into the cruel, cold world.

    I suggest that you review abnormal developmental psychology and interviews with sexual-sadist and/or serialkillers? You may be surprised to learn that many of them were exposed to sex as young children. I think you will begin to understand why some standards are established to protect our children’s developing minds from many diffent types and sources of adult content.

    We have learned that protecting our young from certain types of information while they are growing up is necessary for developing and maintaining peaceful and productive citizens within an advanced society.

    As a young mind develops, early exposure to just about anything extreme (i.e. sex, violence, prejudice, abuse, etc.) can have a profound effect on the emotional and psychological development of the child. And sadly, while we pity abused or misguided children while they are children, we fear, loath, and label them as predators when they become adults with deviant desires.

    As our society becomes increasingly relaxed and open about sexuality in the media (shows, commercials, and even young adult books), parents have to be increasingly diligent in their attempts to shield their children from exposure before the children are emotionally and psychologically ready to process and understand the information.

    Certainly, you and I can agree that we should not take a five year old to see ‘Friday the Thirteenth’ or ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ just because they saw a commercial and they've decided it was a movie they wanted to see?

    Wouldn’t it actually be cruel of us to let them see the movie? And along that same line of thought, wouldn’t it also be cruel to let a child learn that a hot stove will burn them by allowing them to touch it?

    I hope you can see my point, even if you disagree.

    Though none of us may ever be happy with a set of content standards for literature, standards are becoming increasingly necessary as YA novels' subject matter becomes increasingly adult – and anything that helps parents protect and raise their children in today's open society - I am all for it – as long as it doesn’t stomp on the rights of others.

    With that said, I promise I will not be trolling or lurking on your blog. I just felt a parental need to explain why standardizations can be a good thing – especially in a free society.

    Best of luck in your studies and may your life be blessed.

  9. Thanks to everyone for great opinions!

  10. Oh, also--to Anonymous, I really appreciate your comment. I can see this issue is very important to you (as it should be, since you're a parent!).

    The one thing I would disagree with is that I don't quite believe that sexual content in a novel is the same as sexual content in pictures or a movie.

    Secondly, I assume what you're worrying about is YA novels, as children's books generally do not have these explicit content concerns. It's definitely a parent's choice when you can allow your children access to YA novels.

    And I don't think you're a stalker. You're perfectly entitled to visit and share your opinion whenever you like!

  11. Icy, I completely agree with your post on this...probably because I'm also a college student with no children. ;) When I was younger, the only thing my parents ever told me not to read was romance novels because I wasn't "old enough" to understand what was going on in there. Telling me I couldn't read them only made me want to read them more, and putting warnings on books, like video games and movies, will only make kids want to read them even more. It's a futile effort.

  12. Well, I'm a little late posting here, but since I have a rather unique point of view in life regarding this topic, I feel I should share my opinions on it.

    I'm a Christian teenage girl who has been home-schooled all her life. I get straight A's, am very motivated, and am on the local high school swim team. I thought your comment about how sheltered kids are the ones who get into the most trouble was inaccurate, and showed a bit of stereotype on your part.

    It is said that every myth has a grain of truth as its seed, and I believe the same is true with stereotypes. However, just as the Greek myths are purely fiction, a lot of stereotypes are, too. I will never (stressing *never*) become a party girl later on in life, and frankly, TereLiz's comment that "the kids who are the most sheltered are the ones who get into the most trouble in college, whether it's drinking, drugs, sex, or peer pressure" hurt me.

    I have plenty of friends, home-schooled, public-schooled, and private-schooled, and not one of them would do such things. I choose to be friends with people who don't swear, don't drink, don't party, and don't cheat. Call me sheltered, but I live a pretty pure life and I'm proud of that. Sure, I hear the F-word on a fairly daily basis due to circumstances beyond my control, but I have never once *said* it. I'd like to think I never will.

    I've started some graphic books (unknowingly), seen some graphic pictures, heard some strong innuendo, and basically been barraged by this culture's ridiculous worship to sex, but never have I thought in my mind, "This is okay." To shelter a person completely is impossible, but I always make the choice to put the book down, to turn the TV off, and to look away from whatever questionable propaganda the world has put out. In short, I have a strong conscience and I’m proud of it.

    Maybe a ratings system for books isn't needed (everyone knows it probably wouldn't be tolerated anyway), but stronger morals in general definitely are. Instead of a push for ratings, we should instead make a goal to build up kids’ consciences while they’re young. Then when they leave the house, the parents can be confident that they’ve raised a strong adult who can make the right decisions for him- or herself. I agree with you that parents have to let their kids go sometime, but wouldn’t it be great to know that your kids will make the same decisions you would have them make, even without your guidance? My parents know that. My parents set an example for me, and I’ll follow it. When I leave the house, I will stay pure until marriage. I will be responsible. It’s not any ratings system devised by other people that guarantees that, though; it’s the way my parents have raised me and the choices I have made (and will make) for myself.

    I would add a paragraph about how Jesus’ example and the Bible have also influenced my choices, but I don’t want to sound preachy. Suffice it to say that I think a godly lifestyle is the right lifestyle, for a myriad of reasons.

    Thanks for posting and I love your blog; I hope you can see my point of view.

  13. Thank you for posting, Also Anonymous. I can definitely see your point of view, and I too, have home-schooled friends who are perfectly well-adjusted.

    Although, I guess in defense of TereLiz, when she means "sheltered" that does not necessarily mean home-schooled. One of my home-schooled friends has been more places, studied more things, and has more friends than I do! :-)

  14. Hmm. Maybe TereLiz didn't necessarily mean home-schooled people are the most sheltered, but it definitely sounded that way. After all, home-schoolers literally are the most sheltered; they don't really have to leave the house at all, unless they're involved in classes outside the home or a similar program. Kids in public school can't be sheltered, so I'd like to know what she was trying to get at.

    I'm not writing this to you really, just to all the people out there who have misconceptions about home-schoolers. Happy studying. ;]