Every so often, some new ultra-violent video game or gore-riddled movie sets of a wave of hysteria which sweeps through the nation’s collective parenthood. There is wailing, there is gnashing of teeth, there are recriminations and name-calling. Hollywood is decried as a godless behemoth intent on destroying the moral fabric of the nation’s youth. Politicians draft elaborate bills with grandiose titles like “The Protect Our Innocent Children From the Evils of Bloody Video Games Act of 1998” and wave said bills in front of television cameras. Parents vow to guard their children’s viewing habits more closely and children figure out how to sneak out and see exactly what their parents don’t want them to.
I’ve always found these bouts of national indignation incredibly amusing. Firstly, ranting and raving about an incredibly violent movie does nothing but ensure that every single teenager in America will make it a point to see it, if only to annoy their parents. Secondly, I fully believe that the moral crusaders’ anger is wildly misdirected.
It should be the books they’re after.
Granted, there is the occasional national conniption over a piece of literature. I’m thinking primarily of Brad Easton Ellis’ American Psycho which was greeted with a level of disgust and indignation on par with that regularly leveled at Hollywood.
However, on the whole, most books seem to slide under the radar when it comes to parental watchfulness. In the US, a trip to an R-rated film requires a guardian’s presence. Public libraries, on the other hand, are stocked to the ceilings with books containing violent and sexual content leagues more explicit than anything available in a suburban multiplex. Growing up in my family, a trip to the movie warranted a suspicious “What are you seeing?” followed by a careful review for rating and appropriateness. A trip to the library earned a simple “Good for you.”
I’m sure that I’m not alone in this experience and I can think of a few reasons why this would be so.
1. Reading is perceived as a ‘good’ activity while watching TV, seeing movies, and playing video games are all brain-rotting wastes of time. Parents like to see their kids reading, it’s as simple as that. Just the fact that they are curled up with a book rather than staring aimlessly into an idiot box probably makes Mom and Dad feel good enough not to really question what their kid is actually reading.
2. Checking movie ratings is easy. Reading a 500 page book is not. Flip open to any page in a Stephen King novel (my reading of choice as a 13 year old boy) and the are pretty good that there won’t be anything too objectionable. Some profanity, perhaps. Read the whole book, however, and most parents would probably find 30-40% inappropriate for their kid. This takes a lot of time, however, and time is something that most parents are sorely lacking.
3. Most parents need not worry about what their kids are reading because, sadly, their kids are most likely not reading. The most obvious reason parents and politicians make such big fusses about movies is that kids actually go and see movies. Read books? Not so much.
Despite this third reason, the fact remains that adolescents have easy access to printed material that is grossly inappropriate for them. My recent reading of American Psycho gave me cause to reflect on this.
As a teen and pre-teen, I read quite a bit of adult crime fiction. A title like American Psycho, had I come across it on a library shelf, would probably have enticed me to pick it up thinking it would be an interesting police-chasing-serial-killer book. Luckily, the first third of the book would have been impenetrable to a young reader – post-modern stream of consciousness combined with lists of brand names I never would have heard of. In all likelihood, I would have put it back up on the shelf before finishing the first page. There is a chance, however, that I might have flipped through to the middle and read a random passage, as I had a tendency to do.
The scenes beginning in second third of the book are too obscene to even attempt describing here, scenes that make the movie adaptation seem as cuddly as Bambi. Certainly not scenes that any 13 year old boy should be confronted with. At that age, there’s no understanding that the violence and sexuality serve as absurd counterpoints to the banality of modern existence that Ellis is attempting to skewer. There’s no appreciation of the pitch black caricature which is Patrick Bateman. There’s just sex and torture and murder, explicitly described page after page after page.
American Psycho is an extreme example. I’m pretty well read and I haven’t come across another book as abhorrent in its content. That I can understand and appreciate some of its thematic elements and perverse humor, doesn’t mean its not a repulsive work. I loathe censorship, but I would never want an adolescent exposed to Patrick Bateman’s homicidal and misogynistic rage.
All this being said, In the age of the internet, where the most depraved of human instincts are on full display only a few clicks away, is this really a problem? I’m not so sure. I spent my adolescence reading books beyond my maturity level and I seem to have turned out okay. In fact, I’m certain that I’m a better person for it.
At the same time, I pause when I see a list of banned books that places works such as The Adventure of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird alongside books such as American Psycho. There are people who genuinely believe that no book should be restricted in its availability and I sympathize. I’m wholeheartedly opposed to censorship yet I’m certain there’s a very big distinction between books which have simply run afoul of some modern notion of political correctness and books which plunge headlong into the realm of pornography. Can there be artistic merits in the latter? Of course. Should those books be readily available to young readers? My instincts say no.
I’m not a parent. I can’t say for certain how I would feel confronted with the possibility that my child might be exposed to material, be it a book or movie or otherwise, that I found objectionable. Nor can I predict exactly how carefully I will monitor my children’s reading habits (when and if I eventually have any). However, my sense is that both the hysterical “blame Hollywood” and the rigid anti-censorship crowds, while both genuinely concerned about their children’s wellbeing, are overreacting. There must be a more common-sense approach which recognizes that kids are going to view material their parents find objectionable while not using this as an excuse to pretend that parents shouldn’t even try. Banning books isn’t the answer, but neither is allowing children carte blanche to access material which they aren’t prepared for.
I realize that I’ve created a bit of a false dichotomy between two extremes. Most parents struggle to navigate somewhere in between. I know that my parents certainly did and I’m thankful for that. It’s a difficult road, I’m sure, and I just hope that I will be able to do the same when my time comes around.
I’d love to hear from some parents who have had to confront this issue. How do you deal with it?