Appropriate for Kids? A Genre Roundtable

Movies are too violent today! TV is full of too much sex! Even kids shows, once innocent and sweet, are full of violent imagery and bad language! Society is crumbling into the sea! Or is it?

It’s hard to make decisions about what is and isn’t appropriate for kids. Protective instincts rear up, and even the things we did as kids can start to look dangerous. Three WWAC ladies gathered to discuss how these decisions can be made thoughtfully and without condescension.

Some parents don’t like their children to engage with material that could upset or disturb them, for example, horror or even some romances. Are there any genres that you just don’t think are appropriate for kids?

Wendy Browne: My husband and I often let our kids watch things that others might deem inappropriate, but we always watch it with them and discuss it and invite them to question everything. There are a few “we’ll explain when you’re older moments,” but we know they will store those up for later. The key is that door is always open for discussion. There are some genres, such as horror, that might be too much for some children, but it’s up to a responsible parent to determine what their child can or cannot handle. For example, I know that my ten-year old-is not big on violence and will be scared by gory things, while my seven-year-old loves violence and blood and guts and can distinguish that what she sees in movies and video games is not real. But she is very empathetic and her subsequent nightmares will revolve around more direct threats to her loved ones. In other words, horror for them—for anyone—is subjective, and as a parent, I need to be absolutely aware of that when they ask if they can watch a particular thing and decide accordingly. As far as I’m concerned, it is imperative that parents be actively involved in those viewing choices. That is part of our responsibility as parents.

Jamie Kingston: I’m with Wendy. I have no children of my own, but being a fan of genres many adults dismiss as for children, I try to keep an eye out. A frazzled but well meaning adult will often take a kid at their word for what they want without checking to see if it’s really something age appropriate. Horror is one such genre. Deadpool describes his own movie as a horror story due to certain elements. Fox made sure the marketing said “this movie is not for children,” and still there were children in the theaters because their adults didn’t bother doing the research. Horror is meant to scare and thrill, but not every child is ready for that. Language makes me roll my eyes. If your kid leaves the house, your kid will hear “bad” language.  

In other words, horror for them—for anyone—is subjective and as a parent, I need to be absolutely aware of that when they ask if they can watch a particular thing and decide accordingly. As far as I’m concerned, it is imperative that parents be actively involved in those viewing choices. That is part of our responsibility as parents.

Emma: Wendy and her husband’s approach is pretty much how my parents dealt with it, and while I’m not a parent myself, I think it’s the best approach. With my parents, there seemed to be a mental inventory of things that they’d decided between them that they needed to start conversations on, but for the most part they would prefer us to bring any questions to them so that it wasn’t coming off as lecturing or demeaning. In hindsight, I think that’s a smart approach. I saw Alien as my first MPAA rated R film (Canada has since stopped using the MPAA ratings and has a domestic system of its own) when I was eleven, which was a pretty rare occurrence until I was in my teens, and that was fine. As a genre, if I had kids of my own, I would want to keep them away from slashers and overt torture porn stuff like Saw or Hostel until their mid teens if possible. By that point, looking at myself at that age, it’s difficult if not outright impossible to keep media from them. I could find a way to see pretty much any movie my parents disapproved of in 1999 with a 28.8k modem putting the internet out of the equation. There are a lot of horror movies that can be very good for introducing difficult issues to adolescents and teens, like Carrie, Teeth, It Follows, and The Lost Boys, so sometimes it’s just as much about what you ought to show them as ought not to.

What elements need to be in place for media to be “appropriate for kids”?

Wendy: There needs to be an understanding within society in general that kids aren’t simply little adults. They view the world differently, and there is more than enough psychology and observational evidence to show that. Children can view and appreciate media intended for a more mature audience, but keep in mind how they will interpret it for themselves on an individual basis. That said, I’m not suggesting that adult programming should be open to children at all times. Discretion is still required.

Jamie: There are training wheels for horror for kids for a reason. Old shows like Eerie, Indiana, Goosebumps, and Amazing Stories are set up to be spooky but not too much for an “average” child to cope with. They’re also set up to be interesting enough and entertaining enough that older kids and parents will view together with the younger sprouts. But Hollywood loves to push the envelope.

The recent series Gravity Falls—a Disney XD show—had a lot of elements that an adult would be fine watching, but I saw dozens of “this is for children?!” reactions to the final few episodes. I’m inclined to agree. Bill Cypher, the villain of the series, mostly acts mischievous toward the show’s twelve-year-old heroes Dipper and Mabel. For the majority of the series he appears as a goofy little yellow triangle with one eye,  a top hat, and a bow tie—not too threatening. But the further into season two we went, the more Bill’s antics slid away from mischievous but weird and closer to disturbing.

My niblings are eight, six, and almost four. The oldest one got through Star Wars: The Force Awakens along with her sister. They’re padawans now, eager little Jedi. But Star Wars is for kids and always has been. It’s fairly bloodless, thanks to lightsabers and pew pew lasers. Their parents thought they were fine, but their grandmother thought Star Wars too grimdark for them with the killing and politics.

I might, knowing the eight-year-old, let her watch Gravity Falls if she asked. I don’t think the six-year-old could handle it yet, never mind the three-year-old. Even telling them in advance “it’s all pretend” might not be enough that I’d put them in front of this show without an older person present for comfort.

Hollywood seems to think “lack of blood” and “no sexy parts” are enough of a concession in most kid scare fare. But forbidden fruit always looks tasty. Kids will seek out more mature fare for the monster or alien without considering the other adult content.

Also worth considering: as our storytelling styles have changed over the decades, what would have been gasp worthy to our parents barely merits a long glance now. Take a look at the listings for some of the movies and shows that air on the so called “family” channels. I’ve seen old R rated films from the 80s (edited for content) more than once.

Emma: It’s a tough one. Appropriateness, to me, isn’t so much about exposing kids to content or ideas that I disagree with, because with open avenues of communication that can be handled, but what the individual children are capable of coping with or responding to in a healthy way.

A friend of mine with a young daughter watched those same Gravity Falls episodes, and they upset her to the point that even he’s currently on the outs with the show and still needs distance from it before he’s willing to watch the finale, say nothing about doing it with his daughter. By the same token, they watch Adventure Time together, which has a long history of pushing the envelope on certain things and has never even tried to keep a clean moral compass, so it’s difficult to predict.

Elliott and ET surprising each other in the woods scared me way more than anything in Alien ever did. Any time we put it on I would start hyperventilating and my mother would ask if we should shut it off and I kept refusing to let her because I still wanted to get through it and see the rest. I had a similar reaction to an animated adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s Squirrel Nutkin, despite it being one of my favourite of her stories in print. So I guess I don’t really have a hard answer for that, and maybe there just plain isn’t one.

What do you think about content labeling versus content restrictions versus no external recommendations at all? Do you think families should be able to make decisions about what’s appropriate for kids themselves, or do you think governments and media producers need to have or should have a hand in controlling media for kids?

Wendy: I feel that the government guidelines are necessary in terms of providing parents with content warnings, and I feel there should be restrictions in place on the back end to ensure that age appropriate products are being offered. It is then up to parents and educators to determine what kids can handle based on an understanding of the individual child. The problem is, particularly with some parents, there is no effort put into that determination. Some parents adhere strongly to content warnings and recommended ages—which is fine, but may limit a child who is able to handle more mature subject matter—while other parents don’t engage in their kids’ media intake at all and therefore have no idea whether what their children are watching is appropriate for their children or not.

Appropriateness, to me, isn’t so much about exposing kids to content or ideas that I disagree with, because with open avenues of communication that can be handled, but what the individual children are capable of coping with or responding to in a healthy way.

Jamie: I agree with Wendy once again. People who parent live on a spectrum. At one end, we have the shrieking parent who insists everything on TV, the radio, and at the movies is filth inappropriate for their little darling. Less extremely, there are the concerned ones who do try to determine what is safe for their kids but get overwhelmed by sheer volume. There are easily 300 channels available with any pay TV packages. Netflix, Hulu, Vudu, Roku, and other services add to the amount of available viewing. Then there’s YouTube and all the streaming and torrent sites for a parent to contend with. There are the parents who say they watched similar genre material in their youth and turned out fine. At the other extreme, we have the parents who are too busy or too apathetic to bother checking until a problem arises. That’s before we factor in sociopolitical issues of representation versus reality. It would be a complete mess with more accusatory finger pointing than we have now without at least some guidelines.

Emma: I think, before getting into the more immediately relevant issues, it’s important for businesses, like movie theaters and retailers, to be able to indemnify themselves through practices informed by ratings. When Canada abandoned the MPAA ratings and instituted its own in 1997, the new ratings were G, PG, 14A, 18A, and R. For perspective, the majority of films that get MPAA R ratings are classified as 14A in Canada. Gladiator and The Matrix were among the first high profile MPAA R rated films I can remember seeing in Canada as 14A. Deadpool received an 18A rating, which means effectively the same thing as an MPAA R rating: anyone under that age seeing it needs an adult accompanying them.

The Canadian R rating is a lot thornier. Every province, except Quebec (of course), uses these ratings, but they administer them separately, and nowhere is that more true than the R rating, which is neither implemented nor enforced universally across the country. If you’re going to see a movie carrying that rating in, say, BC where I live, everyone in the theater needs to be of age. When the first Jackass movie came out theatrically, I worked concession in a theater, and we’d all listen in on the radios that the ushers used to communicate with so that we could watch when they went in to card everyone in the Jackass showings and watch the wave of kids and teens get escorted out for buying tickets to other movies and trying to sneak into that one.

It was hilarious to us, but there’s obvious legal repercussions if those kids go out and duplicate that stuff. But what that also meant was that parents trying to take their kids to see it would get into these blowout arguments with the box office staff for refusing to sell them tickets for their kids, irrespective of their consent. Jackass presents a case where appropriateness is at it’s absolute grayest for me, but that rating typically gets used for movies with explicit unsimulated sex, which is a red line I absolutely endorse.

That rating got even thornier when I worked at a video store from 2009 to 2011. For years, it seemed to us like the distinction between 18A and R was effectively meaningless, because we’d card anyone for either rating, say nothing about the store’s porn room, but when the porn room got shut down and the company let our porn license lapse we got a bombshell revelation along with it. In order to carry any movie that had been classified as R by the province, we needed a porn license, so we had to immediately pull and ship back all of them. We lost stuff from the likes of Gaspar Noe, Pedro Almodovar, and Vincent Gallo because the province regulated it as heavily as porn. That was a real wake up call, and it still disturbs me that even if you were an independent retailer specializing in foreign and art film, you’d have to go through the regulatory hurdles and expense of getting a porn license.

None of that, to me, does anything to help parents make informed decisions, which should be the honest guiding principle of ratings systems, not just a smokescreen for other political considerations. Carding procedures are important for parents and businesses alike, but accurate and detailed information is just as critical. I was watching my Blu Ray copy of Evil Dead (the 2013 remake) last night and when the MPAA rating flashed up, in the content box it had a spiel about the violence and gore then, “and some sexuality.” The “sexuality” is a rape scene that reenacts one of the most notorious sequences in horror film and was a highly publicized flashpoint during production. There’s no excuse for the oversight and the description for the 18A Canadian rating is even worse, just listing “extreme violence” and “gory scenes.”

Both systems have “Sexual Violence” descriptors, and neither used them. Nor is it an anomaly. Gone Girl doesn’t carry a sexual violence descriptor in either country. There are easily available parents guides for both films that describe in detail the nature of the sexual violence in both that describe it accurately as such, but anyone making their purchasing decision based on the description on the box could have been subjected to a deeply traumatizing experience that could have been easily avoided.

In theory, classification systems are a valuable and important tool, but in practice, government backed “voluntary” classification systems just cannot be trusted by parents to help them decide what’s appropriate for their children and worse still, they needlessly restrict access the distribution of potentially important and challenging work with stigmatizing labels and regulatory red tape.

Gravity Falls: too dark for kids?
Gravity Falls: Too dark for some kids?

What are some examples of children’s media handling topics or tropes well that you’d otherwise be leery of seeing in material for kids?

Wendy: When I discovered anime, I was struck by how often death was featured in shows geared toward children—namely Sailor Moon and Magic Knights Rayearth at the time—which I’ve let my kids subsequently watch. I find that North American media tends to shy away from the subject (for example, a particular death in Sailor Moon was edited out of the North American version), which leaves kids unprepared for the reality of this important part of life. There’s this fear that exposing kids to real events such as this will rob them of their innocence. I believe that, as long as children are allowed to ask questions and to process such things in their own way, they can get through a lot more than we give them credit for. Similarly, sex, nudity, and sexuality are topics that I wish were better addressed in children’s media, but they have to be addressed better in adult media first.

As far as specific examples go, I am fond of Adventure Time for pushing the apparent boundaries of age appropriateness and unapologetically exploring taboo topics that other shows might avoid completely. The very first episode we watched was “Princess Cookie,” which features a boy who wanted to be a princess, but was not allowed because he was a boy. It helped me reinforce a message that I’ve been teaching my kids. We’ve also watched Avatar the Last Airbender together, and intend to watch The Legend of Korra and Steven Universe as well, all shows that I feel are excellent examples of diversity and representation in many areas. Even when these shows fail in certain areas, they still offer up the opportunity for dialogue about topics that aren’t readily explored in other media.

Jamie:  I grew up during the Sandy Frank years of anime on TV, and the restrictions placed on shows so that even villains parachuted to safety after GI JOE blew up their plane.  I watched with dismay as every cartoon could be a thirty minute toy commercial as long as there was a lesson at the end to teach the kids something. I only learned as an adult that those bird kids from Battle of the Planets were deadly ninjas who killed rather than “stunned” the bad guys. The R2-D2 homage doesn’t even exist in the original cut. Meanwhile, other kids and I were watching ninjas chop each other up with swords in kung fu movies that aired in the same time slot on weekends. So, I saw blood and learned about death anyway.

I also grew up with old school Looney Tunes and Tom and Jerry, both of which have been relegated to night showings on Boomerang and are no longer considered appropriate for children due to not gore, but violence. Amazingly, the first seasons of Sesame Street are also considered inappropriate for younger viewers.  

Today’s fare? I am on record as an evangelist for Steven Universe. The show is painstaking in handling romantic and relationship issues with respect and sensitivity. Kids need to see that different types of people are just other people, and that doesn’t make them bad for being different. I expect this will only improve as a trend as demand for diversity grows and requires media producers to evolve or die.

Young Justice had some horror in several of its episodes and didn’t shy away from discussion of death. There’s a concerted movement to give it a third season on Netflix. Ours is a time of unprecedented access to content producers. That will help determine the shape of what qualifies as “appropriate for children.”

Kids were then and are now more sharp than many adults give them credit for. So, it’s up to the adults to work out what they want kids seeing. V-chips, smart TVs, internet tools, and blocking features from cable and satellite make it simpler than it has ever been for a parental figure to tailor their child’s viewing. It is a combination of using the guidelines and tools available plus communicating with the children to gauge their comfort and cope levels that IMO works best.

The Crystal Gems of Steven Universe.

Emma: I don’t think there’s anything I’m all that leery about introducing to kids so much as I’ve been surprised at various times about what a given network might allow past their standards and practices departments. Allegory is a powerful tool that kids understand as the topic becomes relevant to them. Whether we’ve internalized this as adults or not, we’ve all looked back on the media we consumed as children and saw the underlying subtext and allegory, remarking on how they shaped our approaches to various real world issues before we fully understood them.

You look at Sailor Moon and they tried to bludgeon it to death when it got brought over here, present it to American kids as this fraudulent taxidermy of the original. There are literally hours worth of material that was cut, re-arranged, and re-scripted for the first US release that not only closeted Haruka and Michiru, but presented Rei as a cruel bully and deliberately white washed Usagi. But we saw through those lies and worked to recover the truth through bootlegs and fan works until ADV came through with the first fully restored release. So my generation has spawned the likes of Pendleton Ward, Natasha Allegri, Rebecca Sugar, and Alex Hirsch as a direct response to that experience and others like it.

They understand not only the necessity, but the power of allegory, which is a quality you see in Rebecca Sugar and her team on Steven Universe in particular. When Amethyst’s origin is revealed and she goes back to where she came from and has the blowout with the other gems over being damaged and wrong, you know what it is, and so do the kids watching. It doesn’t need to be said that she’s from some analogue of an abusive home, that her father was her mother’s rapist, or any of the other circumstances that it could be interpreted as a stand in for. Anyone who needs it is going to appreciate it and carve their own meaning from it.

That’s also why the constant blathering in adult fandom circles about the crystal gems being “genderless space rocks” is such a disingenuous lie. They’re intentionally coded as feminine, and everyone and their dog reads them as such. Kids watch this show and they understand that Sapphire and Ruby are a same gender couple, and they further understand Jasper’s criticism of gem fusion as a metaphor for homophobia. Years ago a friend of mine told me that her daughter, who was preschool aged at the time, told her that she was okay with “mommy’s rainbow secret.” Kids get it, and they get it just as easily through allegory and inference as they do when shown explicitly.

Thanks for the discussion, ladies! Where do you, as a parent, caregiver or interested party, draw the line? Keep the conversation going in the comments.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.