Adult Content Isn’t
Posted by Dave
The way our culture uses the word ‘adult’, or alternately ‘mature’, as labels for fiction (and other things) bothers me. It is deceptive, inaccurate, and possibly harmful. Quite often, something labeled ‘adult’ is anything but. Stories told in print, on television, in music, video games, movies, and advertising equate ‘adult’ with alcohol or drug abuse, violence, crime, sex, and vulgar language. A story about an alcoholic drug dealer who is a serial rapist and murderer, and who can’t utter a sentence that does not include a word that disparages a biological function, will certainly be categorized something like Adult Content—For Mature Audiences. But the kind of behavior such a story highlights, often in graphic detail, is far from adult, and it certainly isn’t mature.
What are we telling our kids? They all want to be ‘adult’, right? They hope someday to be ‘mature’. From their perspective, adults have power. They’re respected. They’re independent. They have money. They can vote, and drive, and make all sorts of choices for themselves that children cannot.
But when those kids are adults, they can do these things. So what else can adults do? Well, if our fiction reflects our culture, apparently adults also love to get drunk, they want little more out of life than to get laid, and they see violence as the first and best response to any difficult situation. Physical domination makes a boy a man. Sexual attractiveness makes a girl a woman. That’s what ‘adult’ fiction seems to imply.
Current ‘adult’ fiction often makes an attempt to rise above its underlying message in that it has the ‘good’ guys winning, but these heroes are often only ‘good’ insofar as they are not as bad as their opponents. More often than not, their victory is accomplished through resorting to violence, and it isn’t as a last resort or with any sense of remorse. The violent conflict is given the central spotlight in the story, and somewhere along the way, there is a good chance that someone is going to get laid.
I can see why this kind of fiction is popular. It appeals to humanity’s lowest common denominator, our base instincts. You don’t need any special intellectual or ethical maturity to understand such stories. The behaviors they present are hardwired into our genes. A Neanderthal could probably understand them.
But while these core instincts might have been advantageous for our prehuman ancestors in a purely evolutionary sense, they are not the characteristics that allowed us to rise above other animals. They are not the traits that exemplify a rational or mature species. Sexual obsession, violence, and a poor vocabulary are, in my mind, examples of behavior that is intrinsically immature, both for a species and for individuals.
Ironically, fiction labeled as being for children or young adults often caries themes that seem to me to be more mature in the sense that they present what is best in humanity. They reflect the behaviors that make us unique—rational thought, introspection, consideration of others, cooperation, understanding…. When I think of people who are mature, those who represent what it truly means to be ‘adult’, I think of people who exemplify behaviors such as these. They are the kind of people who have enabled mankind to rise above its humble ancestry, and they are the kind of people I admire most.
The current Motion Picture Association of America ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R, & NC-17) use the word ‘adult’ only in the final rating, but other ratings imply ‘adult’ content by warning of films that may not be suitable for children under a certain age. Producers and reviewers often site ‘adult’ content when describing films with R ratings.
Video game ratings are currently where the words ‘mature’ and ‘adult’ are used (or misused) the most. The Entertainment Software Rating Board categorizes content from ‘eC’ (Early Childhood – Content is intended for young children) to ‘Ao’ (Adults Only – Content suitable only for adults ages 18 and up. May include prolonged scenes of intense violence, graphic sexual content and/or gambling with real currency). Their ‘M’ rating for ‘Mature’ warns of content that “is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.”
As far as I know, there is no corresponding rating system for books (nor should there be), but publishers and retailers often provide warnings of ‘adult’ content.
I have no objection to ‘adult’ fiction as such. I don’t particularly like it, but that doesn’t mean others should not. I certainly wouldn’t advocate banning it. I wouldn’t even restrict it in any meaningful sense. I simply think that our current labels for it are misleading.
Rather than using the words ‘adult’ or ‘mature’ as single word definitions for content that includes senseless violence, graphic sex, or crude language, perhaps the words ‘adolescent’ and ‘immature’ would be better. At least then we wouldn’t be telling our children that such behaviors are regarded as examples of maturity, or that they are something we would recommend they strive for as adults.
That’s my opinion. If I were to summarize it as a Tweet, it would be something like this:
Dear Media, “adult” ≠ “sex.” “Adult” ≠ “violent.” ― “Adult” = “intelligent.” “Adult” = “thought provoking.” Please correct your definition.