Saturday, 2 February 2013

Books: Age Inappropriate?

I heard a news story a couple of weeks ago about a judge in Brazil, who ordered that two stores in Rio de Janeiro could only sell the Fifty Shades trilogy by E. L. James if they merchandised them on top shelves only, or at least wrapped them up, so under-18's couldn't leaf through the pages. Since hearing about this, I've been thinking about it a lot - mostly because, after initially scoffing at this over-zealous judge, I had to concede that they kind of had a point, and not just because Brazil has a specific law about preventing under-18's from having access to erotic content - which, let's face it, everyone knows Fifty Shades has in abundance.

I suppose the reason why it stuck with me is because nearly every medium of entertainment is censored with age restrictions; films are rated based on their content, be it violent, sexual or plain-old too-much-swearing; CD's come with parental guidance notices if they, too, contain some of the harsher expletives. Television networks can only air certain programmes after the watershed, and even adverts can sometimes get themselves a time-restriction based on whether there's a chance a child may be watching. Porn is for the top-shelf only - do NOT mix in with The Beano - and bars are strictly for adults. So why is it, when so much entertainment depends on a person being over a certain age, that books seem to slip under the censor radar? I can certainly think of one or two times when I probably would have benefited from being told I wasn't allowed to read something because I was too young - the most obvious example being American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis which I freely admit I was too young to read when I did read it, and so slightly scarred myself with the incredibly explicit, violent content.

The confusion for me comes from the fact that a child could easily access the same content in a book, that is age-restricted elsewhere. An example of this would be the True Blood television series, which is aired way after the watershed and rated as 18 on the DVD - only grown-ups can watch. Yet the books on which the series is based have no such restrictions; in fact, given that they tap into the wildly popular vampire-fantasy market, there's no stopping a teenage girl walking into a shop, picking up a copy thinking it's like Twilight (which it kind of is, I suppose) and taking it home. So even though the content is too explicit for most viewing times on TV, the books are somehow acceptable to all audiences, at any time? This is the conundrum with books: anyone can buy or borrow them, with little more than perhaps a raised eyebrow or disapproving glance from a salesperson or librarian.

However, there is also the 'Classics' question - how can you age restrict a book when it's considered to be essential reading? Lord of the Flies by William Golding is a horrifying tale of children turning savage on an island, yet because it explores the idea of civilisation, survival-of-the-fittest and the human psyche, it is a must-read for all, and often features on a school's curriculum. Despite the awful, climactic scene of the novel, teenagers are encouraged to read it and analyse it for hidden meanings, motifs and allegories - and rightly so. It's a fantastic - if harrowing - piece of writing, and let's face it, not many teenagers are probably going to pick it up themselves. I myself discovered one of my all-time favourites - To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee, one of the most frequently-banned books - because I had to read it at school. Would I have eventually found it myself? Probably - but I would have missed out on several more years of joy. It's thanks to the curriculum that I found myself, at fourteen, reading about racism, rape and murder for school.

I suppose the difference is that books are something you have to choose to expose yourself to - songs are played everywhere, so naturally some versions need to be 'cleaned up' in case a child hears. Similarly, nearly every house has a TV - what's to stop your child walking in and glimpsing something on screen they're too young to be watching? These forms of entertainment are everywhere, and so easily seen or heard, that they have to be monitored. Books, however, by their very physical form, are exclusive; you have to open one and actually take the time to immerse yourself in the story to have access to what lies in the pages.  Fifty Shades and it's spin-offs are an exception; you can probably open one of those book at any point and whoop, there it is! The money shot - something raunchy is a-going on. But even then, books require imagination, which requires experience; how can you conjure an image up about something when you're not even sure what's happening? Only with growing up can you really begin to appreciate some of the more adult aspects of certain books. It's like learning the language of the Droogs in A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess; you can't really understand just what Alex is doing in the first few chapters, because you don't know what he's saying. It's not until you've picked up the slang that you realise that actually, what goes on in those first few chapters is pretty damn awful.

I have to say that I do agree in theory with the Brazilian judge - because the Fifty Shades series has now become so famous for it's sexual content that of course teenagers are going to seek it out. But having sat down and thought about it properly for once, I can see how age-restricting books - as the BBC also explored - would be a pointless endeavour. In a way, our age is what restricts our understanding, and so our exposure - for how can a teenager with only a rudimentary knowledge of what-goes-where-and-when fully understand what is going on in a novel with adult themes? I speak from experience - there are so many books I read as a teenager because I thought it made me look smart, even though I only had a vague idea of what had gone on. It wasn't until I re-read them as an adult that I realised just how much I had misunderstood or glossed over; I'm pretty certain the only reason why I understood so much in American Psycho was because I'd seen the film first, and could vaguely attach scenes from there to scenes in the book. So whilst it may be time to start putting the erotica on the topshelf as the market for it grows, the rest of our literature should sit comfortably on any shelf it likes, smugly confident in the knowledge that every person who passes it over has no idea that it's got everything and more within it's pages.

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