I Watch R-Rated Movies!

That just doesn’t have the same ring as this week’s battle cry of, “I read banned books!”, does it?

When CanaryTheFirst asked me to write about Banned Books Week, I scanned the list of the most frequently banned and challenged books and shook my head. It’s chock-full of classics. I mean, why on earth would anyone challenge Fahrenheit 451? The Lord of the Rings? To Kill A Mockingbird?  Really? It’s enough to send us, traditionally mild-mannered bibliophiles, to the ramparts to battle the dark forces of small-mindedness and censorship. I felt my internal hyperbole generator getting into gear.

But, as much as I am a reader, I spend most of my day and energy being a scientist–and scientists don’t deal with emotions. We’re not supposed to write in hyperbole. We’re trained to deal with data, make observations, and draw conclusions.

So, let’s look at the data, as provided by the American Library Association. For the past 20 years in the United States, there have been slightly over 10,000 challenges to books. Of those, the most challenges have come from parents (with library patrons placing second). The reasons cited are varied, but by far, the greatest number of challenges are directed to content that contains “sex”, “violence”, “foul language”, and (perhaps more ambiguously) content that is “unsuited to age group”.


The ALA’s data suggests that parents want to limit their children’s exposure to sex, violence, and offensive language.


That doesn’t seem too outrageous, does it?

I don’t even have kids and I want to limit kids’ exposure to those things. In a way, it buoys my faith in people to think that parents are aware and engaged in what their kids are reading. As a society, shouldn’t we do the same?

MPAA ratings

In fact, we do it all the time. We keep pornographic materials behind brown paper and post warnings on websites. We rate movies because we believe that there are certain things that children don’t really need to see, or things that children shouldn’t be seeing, but which are probably okay for teens.  We screen and label movies, and we leave it up to the parent to decide.

We have similar ratings systems in place for video games and television shows that seek to empower parents with information about what their kids (and they) are consuming. In most stores, children aren’t allowed to buy M-rated games without the parents being there.

Game Ratings

And yet, I think back to one of the formative series I read in my high school years. This book is listed in NPR’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Top 100The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.

What about its content? Cursing? Mild. Violence? In spades. Incest? Yep. Rape? Yep.

Would I want my imaginary 10-year-old picking that up? No way! What about my 15-year-old? Maybe.

And so, after thinking about this, I wondered… why isn’t there a rating system for books? As media, what makes books free from this sort of industry regulation? My guess is that the answer lies in the issue of scale. The sheer number of books published monthly eclipse the film and game industry by orders of magnitude. And no matter how good a speed-reader you might be, it probably takes you longer to digest a book than a tv show. This combination likely makes the evaluation of books impractical if not impossible.

Even so, the question I want to put out there to the Canary Faithful is this:

By asking this question, I certainly do not want to suggest that I am somehow pro-censorship. As an adult I believe that I have the right to read whatever I damn well please. And like most of you, I shake my head with incredulity when I see a book like Harry Potter challenged on the ground of it being “occult”. But I do wonder, would its magic really be diminished if there was a little sticker in the corner that read: PG?

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17 thoughts on “I Watch R-Rated Movies!

  1. I’d be in favor of a ratings system. I’d rather see my book made unavailable to children under the age of 14 because it fell into a certain category based on an established set of guidelines, then to see it arbitrarily dismissed because of someone’s misguided opinions.

    • H.E. I think that’s what I was thinking about — I’d rather see books classified thoughtfully than have a one or two rogue opinions stir up unnecessary controversy.

  2. As a parent I could really get behind a rating system for books, especially for kids. My son is a wonderful reader, but at 11 years old, and reading well beyond grade level it has become increasingly difficult to find books that are 1) interesting to him and 2) age appropriate for a tween. I don’t mean censorship; he is my son and I am happy to parent him by setting age appropriate boundaries. But it would be great to have a summary of language, violence or sex that may appear in a book so I can help him choose appropriate material. I rely on some nice websites before allowing him to see movies – something similar for books would be wonderful! Although you are right- the sheer volume is daunting- school librarians and publishers of books targeted to kids and teens already have multiple rating systems to assess difficulty. Can adding ratings for content be that much more difficult?

    • This is pretty much what I was going to say. So, ditto. My kids aren’t that old yet, but with the way my 3 year old is going, I fully expect her to read above her grade level, and finding things that are suitable can be hard because of the volume of books put out. I’d go to friends for suggestions (as my brother has done with my crazy reading nephew.) but a rating system for at least juvenile books could be nice. I definitely agree that adults can and should read what they choose. I’m not for banning them for kids either, but allowing them to read it at a time that they can understand it based on maturity.

      • Oh, Steve, this is where parenting gets really hard! So much depends on the kid. I am lucky in that my son is pretty mature and responsible for his age. I am relatively conservative in that I have carefully limited his exposure to gratuitous language, violence and sex. I try my best to give him a framework for understanding more mature themes. I try to keep a dialog open where he can ask questions and get honest answers. Despite all the advice out there it is mostly trial and error!

  3. I read well above my level when I was a preteen/tween. Many of the books I read probably would have fallen into a PG-13 or MA category, and although my parents are open-minded folks, they probably would have had some reservations about letting me check out, purchase, or borrow these books. (e.g. Many Stephen King novels have aspects of sex in them that as a young teenager I glossed right over for the gore/horror, but I’m glad I was able to read them nonetheless.)

    I’m all for having additional aids for parents to make informed decisions about what their children should/should not read, but I don’t think it should be up to the industry to police the books and ensure those “underage” are reading what SOMEONE deemed “too mature” for a 12 year old, no matter how mature said 12 year old actually is.

    And if you’ve seen “This Film is Not Yet Rated”, a documentary about the MPAA rating process and its often arbitrary and wrong-headed approach to evaluating film content and assigning a rating based on the opinion of unqualified individuals and/or those with conflicts of interest with the studios, you’ll know why I am NOT in favor of instituting a similar restricted-reading scenario in the publishing industry.

    • Ross — I wholeheartedly agree — I think what I was most thinking of is something that can help parents decide what might be good content. A parent can take a kid into an R-rated movie without any issue, but a 12-year old can’t get into one on their own.

      I will have to check out “Not Yet Rated” I haven’t seen it yet.

  4. When I visited family in the Netherlands, books actually were rated. Not on the G/PG/R scale, but with stickers signaling themes parents might take note of. A fist meant violence, for example, two pairs of feet (one on top of the other) meant sex, and so on. Easy for an adult to spot, while innocuous enough to go over a young child’s head. I thought that was a smart idea for parents who want to keep abreast of what their kids read but don’t have time to screen everything first.

    • jj — that’s an interesting idea and a good one for little kids. Tweens would, of course, be too savvy to figure it out, but still I’m for putting more data (and not spun out of control craziness) in parents’ and the public’s hands.

  5. Pingback: Banned Book Week Poll | Stevil

  6. Steve, not to rain on your parade but those books you mentioned do have a rating system. It is admittedly ad hoc and informal, but it exists.

    The problem is that what one parent believes is appropriate for twelve-year olds, another may feel is inappropriate. And the most common response is not “I don’t think my child should read that, so I’ll keep him from doing so”; instead, it is “I don’t think any child should read that, so I’ll get it taken off of the shelves”. That’s why parents try to ban Shakespeare, Vonnegut, Twain, Heinlein, and the rest – not because their children shouldn’t read something but because they don’t want yours to do so.

    • Your slight drizzle doesn’t bother me John because at some level this comes down to how as a society we manage differences. No one should allow one parent (or librarian) to unilaterally decide what every student should read, but they should be able to start a discussion of what is appropriate material. Spurious ideas lead to short discussions, while others may require a school board’s deliberation with public input– and since the SB is elected, we are represented.

      For example, if I want my school cafeteria to stop selling Fritos because they’re crap, I can nominate that idea be put into place. We can debate the merits (healthier diet) versus cost (lack of choice), and if done correctly, no one person is going to get to make the choice, even though the idea originally started with one person’s idea. Challenging and ultimately organizing book content should be seen the same way.

  7. I sensor what my child watches and reads. The new movie and tv ratings work so well because they tell you why it rated what it is rated. In my house, we allow more violence than sexuality. So a movie rated R for violence might get the nod for my oldest if it doesn’t have a lot of sexual content. Books should totally do this. Comics kind of alread do.

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