Once when I was in high school, rehearsing history classes with my friends, I opened my book at a random page and found a picture of a common burial ground found in a concentration camp after the war. I didn’t expect it and I exclaimed something like, ‘What the hell is that?’. I must have sounded really shocked, because one of my friends replied in her best blasé voice: ‘That’s a mass grave with corpses of Jews. That’s the sort of things they do in wars, you know. That’s the real world.’
What I didn’t tell my friends at that point was that I wasn’t truly shocked to discover the ‘real world’. I was shocked for a much simpler reason: part of my family is Jewish, and when I saw that picture, I realised that my grandmother, or perhaps my beloved grand-uncle and grand-aunt, could have ended up in that mass grave. It’s a rather disturbing thought when it applies to your own family. Needless to say, I didn’t feel like sharing that information after that, and so I simply went along with the reputation for being a wussy the event earned me. It was of little consequence as I stopped seeing these people after I left school, and it’s not what I want to talk about here.
Two things in this story are relevant. The first is, my friends were eager to show that they weren’t shocked, that they could look at pictures of mass graves without batting an eye, and it seemed to be a source of pride for them. The second is, they must have found it inconceivable that some people might have personal reasons to be disturbed by particular things. It was as if there existed a sort of scale on which you could arrange more or less shocking things, and the further down the scale you managed to go without flinching, the more of a grown-up you were (which I doubt is a very grown-up way to think about life, but whatever). And in fact, it’s a mindset I’ve encountered quite a few times since.
Nowadays, films, TV and video games are rated. That means that someone decides, based on the number of sexual or violent scenes (I understand swear words are also a motive for censorship in some countries), how old people have to be to watch it. The most obvious flaw of this system is that some stories can be extremely disturbing without showing a drop of blood (oh, and really, are we sure it’s just as traumatic for children to watch lovers have healthy sex as it is to watch people being tortured in close-up?). But I think ratings have contributed to a perverse phenomenon: namely, that the quantity of violence or otherwise disturbing material you can stomach has become a measure of how mature you are.
It was quite predictable, wasn’t it? Tell a bunch of fourteen-year-olds that you have to be sixteen to handle a given film, and they’ll happily watch it to show you how advanced they are. But this mindset doesn’t end with teenage years. I’ve heard adults describe Narnia as ‘more adult’ than The Lord of the Rings, because more people die. I’m not even going to dwell on how absurd this is, how so much of mediatic violence is no more than ‘Pew pew, you’re dead!’ with added blood, and so much onscreen sex is ‘I saw her titties *gigglegigglegiggle*’ with the actual tits in the background (life would be so simple if the most complicated realities we ever have to handle were the fact that people can shed bodily fluids in various circumstances, wouldn’t it?). The real problem here, I think, is that desensitisation to violence becomes desirable and compulsory. Growing up means you shouldn’t be shocked anymore.
(and yes, I’m deliberately omitting sex from that sentence: I see a problem with being desensitised to violence, I don’t see one with learning about sex. I just wish it was represented better so young people don’t get warped ideas when they should have real education.)
I don’t know if the rating system alone is to blame, though I’m convinced it plays a big part. I’m not sure what the solution is, either. Well, I might suggest that people in charge with administering ratings should perhaps be actual psychologists who have spent some time thinking about what can be shocking and why, instead of writing the amount of bloodshed and nudity from a film on a spreadsheet and deciding from there. I might also point out that children are going to be shocked sooner or later no matter what, and I sometimes wonder if this is such a bad thing (within certain limits of course: I’m talking of shocks you recover from in a couple of days, not of traumas that scar you for life). In any case, I wonder what’s worse: spending one or two sleepless nights in anxiety when you’re eight years old, or deciding somewhere around your teenage years that no matter how much violence you witness, the only reaction it should stir in you is pride, because you managed to watch without feeling a thing?
I don’t claim to have an answer here. But something tells me that when children end up playing Call of Duty with glee in spite of the horrifying portrayal of very real peoples it offers, all because they’re happy to show they’re not squeamish, or when adults ramble about how mature Game of Thrones is in spite of the fact that every other woman gets raped in passing as if it was perfectly normal, then there must be something we’re doing seriously wrong.