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December 16, 2010

Op-Ed: The Pitfalls of Age Ratings


Comics ratings: So useful in theory, so complicated in real life. It certainly is handy that the publishers put that age rating on the back, but what does it mean? Who decides what a 13-year-old can see that a 12-year-old can't? And which 13-year-olds are they talking about, anyway?

My librarian friends tell me they are busy and don't have time to read detailed reviews. At the same time, they need to be able to acquire books that are age-appropriate and that kids want to read. Reviews, roundups, and book lists are supposed to help with that, but classifying books by age category is fraught with pitfalls. Some examples:

Misdirection: I just got a batch of comics from a publisher who is pitching them as teen-friendly. These comics are full of boob-socks and beheadings, and I can’t imagine a library promoting them to teenagers without getting a boatload of complaints.

Inconsistency: A lot of American comics publishers rate frankly adult comics as 16+, whereas 16+ for manga is incredibly tame. On the other hand, manga series usually get sexier and more violent as they go on, so the publisher has to decide whether to rate the early volumes for older kids (even though there is no problematic content) or increase the rating for later volumes and risk losing readers.

Community standards: I live in Massachusetts, which is probably the bluest of the blue states; I was raised Catholic; and I'm a liberal. What I regard as suitable for a child, or a teen, is going to be very different from what a Southern Baptist mom in South Carolina would let her kids read.

Blind spots: A few years ago, one of the larger manga publishers started using detailed ratings that listed three or four reasons for each book's ratings. I picked up one of their books, which I think was rated 13+. The back cover listed three or four different reasons for the rating—language, partial nudity, etc.—but they didn’t mention the fact that it was about stepsiblings who had a crush on one another (although if you’re publishing manga, you might as well make “implied incest” one of your standard categories). The publisher in this case was so focused on the minutiae of nipples-or-no-nipples, swears-or-no-swears, that they missed a major thematic issue that many readers would find much more troubling than something that pops up in one or two panels.

Anarchic children: Here’s the really hard part. When my kids were 10 and 11, they wouldn’t touch a book that was rated below 13+, nor would they watch a movie that was rated less than PG-13. In my experience, kids read up, so the ratings don't really mean what adults think they do. Go back to those boob-sock comics—I think they are abominable, but I can see where they would have a certain appeal to a teenage boy. Part of the problem is separating our own opinions of what kids should be reading from what kids actually want to read—and, in the real world, what they actually do read.
A related problem is simply that all kids are different. I used to think I knew everything there was to know about raising children—until I had my second. What I learned is that two girls from the same gene pool, raised in the same household, can still be totally different.

All this makes it really hard to put together a one-size-fits-all booklist. The best we can do is head for the middle, take publishers' recommendations with a grain of salt, and try to be consistent. Knowing whether recommendations skew young or old is helpful, because then we can adjust our expectations accordingly. And the truest guide, although it may not be what we want to see, is what real kids are reading—especially when the grownups aren't looking.