I’ve been thinking a bit recently (yes, I’m fine, thanks) about how we define ‘adult’ in terms of media. No, I’m not talking about porn, although I suppose that is part of the issue. What I mean is they way in which both consumers and writers perceive what is and is not ‘adult’ content. This comes mostly from watching the recent episodes of ‘Torchwood: Miracle Day’, a self-confessed ‘adult’ Dr Who spin off.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m really enjoying ‘Miracle Day’, but I have long been of the view that Russel T. Davis, the executive producer, creator and head writer of Torchwood, is not a good writer. He’s a fantastic plotter and producer, but his technical writing is not good at all. Torchwood has always been guilty of falling into the trap of trying too hard to be ‘adult’. There have often been sequences in the stories in which everyone stops for a sex break, or plots revolving around sex itself, usually dealt with in a very crude and unsophisticated way.
My argument is that such open, often very forward and explicit attitudes towards sex is not indicative of ‘adult’ content, but is instead rather juvenile. There is no need for half of the cast to go off and have sex midway through the episode; it often does not actually add anything to the storyline, or the characters. It’s gratuitous, immature and often quite silly. Hardly adult.
Sadly, video games are usually the worst contenders for this. The Gears of War games are almost always given ‘mature’ or 18+ ratings, even though the games have no real depth or sophistication, just gore and violence. They are not ‘mature’ games, they are quite obviously immature. Similarly the portray of characters, particularly women, as gender stereotypes can hardly be defined as ‘adult’. Femme Fetalle characters wearing next to nothing being highly sexualised and often consciously objectivised is not adult, it’s childish.
I want to make clear that I’m not really taking about rating systems, but the perception of what is ‘adult’ content. However I think the point that needs to be made is that giving content that is not at all adult the label of ‘mature’ gives the wrong impression about what we consider mature. This is especially true when you consider the fact that the rating system is almost always ignored by consumers once children get above the age of 13 or so. Believe me, I’ve worked with 13 year old kids, they know all the language, they’ve seen and the gore and they know what a pair of boobs look like. If we are trying to protect teens from such explicit content, we are failing, so in giving such contend the label of ‘adult’ we are actually giving a very unhealthy impression of what it means to be mature.
Of course, this begs the question of what does it mean to be adult? This is actually a very difficult thing to define. When we describe media as ‘adult’ or ‘mature’ we mean content appropriate for adults, or mature people. Of course it is perfectly possible for teenagers to be as mature as many adults, but I don’t really want to get into that. It very much depends on the individual, which makes life hard for legislators, hence why they tend to draw a line in the sand at age 18. There is a difference between what is appropriate for children, young adults and adults and writers have to delicately balance their content to accommodate for their target audience.
Some content, themes and ideas are simply not appropriate for teenagers or children. Sometimes because it’s too complex (not wishing to sound patronising) or too dark. Often it’s simply that it deals with matters that they have no interest in or experience of, so it simple isn’t interesting or relevant to them. We should not use language, sex and violence as a measuring stick for these things.
To return to the example of Torchwood I mentioned earlier, I think Torchwood actually does a fantastic job of being quite mature. The current series deals with a phenomenon wherein the entire human race becomes immortal and digs straight into the consequences of that. People living through excruciatingly painful injuries and suffering on with no visible end in sight, a character who actually wants to die, but can’t, the moral issues now that murder no longer exists. Beyond that main premise, we have individuals using the disastrous situation to their own advantages, the power of the mob and a corporate conspiracy to name a few of the other themes that surface. It’s pretty dark. It explores some of the more unpleasant sides of human nature and of society. It’s pretty adult. It is not made more adult by random, all-together-now sex montages. In fact, next to the maturity of the rest of the series, those sequences actually look horribly out of place and almost comic.
The series is quite clearly targeted at adults. It’s not that teens should not watch it, it’s just that there’s a pretty good chance such things would go over their heads, or that they would, quite frankly, get bored by it. It’s not appropriate for less mature people simply because it’s not targeted at them.
In much the same way, a middle aged character who is going through a midlife crisis, dealing with divorce, debt and stress, might appeal to adults who can actually relate to such problems, whereas teens, even people in their twenties, would probably find that incredibly dull because they cannot relate to it. It deals with issues which do not mean anything to them. It’s adult in its content because it appeals to adults, not because it has content deemed inappropriate for children.
‘Adult’ or ‘mature’ content should not be a byword for sex, violence and gore, but simple an indication of the target audience. It’s is a message that the content is not meant to appeal to younger viewers and will probably not interest them. This is what Torchwood was designed for; Dr Who that appeal to the adult audience. That would not change if you got rid of the sex.
Video Games as a medium would take a massive leap forward if it started acknowledging its audience as adult and started building games with real adult content, games that, while being appropriate for kids, would be more appealing to adults, not because of the gore or the two dimensional female eye-candy, but because of the complex and sophisticated themes and ideas conveyed. This is becoming increasingly relevant as older generations get into gaming and the generations which have grown up with games, get older.
There’s nothing wrong with gory video games, or unsophisticated video games designed to be pieces of escapism. Just as there is nothing wrong with television which embraces gore and sex. Sex, in particular, forms quite a major part of most people’s lives. It is relevant and, when appropriate, can be used in a mature way. However, we need to get away from the perception that, for something to be ‘adult’ or ‘gritty’ or ‘dark’, it needs to have gore and sex and violence. We need to stop using these things as bywords for adult content. We need to grow up about our perceptions of adulthood.