What maturity means

There’s a problem with the way we categorize things — a problem I’ve struggled with for a long time now. Movies, books and video games are called “mature” when they have violence and/or sex in them. The horrors of war and the depths of sexuality are clearly not appropriate for small children, therefore they’re meant for adults.

Simple enough. But this distinction is often misconstrued — so that some people think if a work doesn’t have inappropriate content for children, it can’t possibly be meant for adults. If a work doesn’t have R-rated violence and sex, it must be boring Teletubby stuff.

There are a lot of factors at work here. Our marketing-driven world wants there to be clear lines between children’s entertainment and adult entertainment. And we have increasingly short attention spans in this day and age, so the public probably wants punchier content. And American culture strongly associates some forms (e.g. non-human characters, or colourful animated art) with children’s entertainment. Media is expected to fit into categories — and one of those category divisions is mature/not mature.

But what is maturity, really? The word has many connotations. It might mean mere physical maturity — so a pubescent 13-year-old could be called mature. Moreso if he plays “mature” video games about shooting Nazi soldiers, or watches a “mature” movie with a sex scene in it. That kid is probably fixated on violence and boobies at least partly because he’s grasping at adult concepts, thinking that by association, he’ll be less child-like.

C.S. Lewis had a thought on this subject that I’ve always liked:

“Critics who treat ‘adult’ as a term of approval, instead of as a merely descriptive term, cannot be adult themselves. To be concerned about being grown up, to admire the grown up because it is grown up, to blush at the suspicion of being childish; these things are the marks of childhood and adolescence. And in childhood and adolescence they are, in moderation, healthy symptoms. Young things ought to want to grow. But to carry on into middle life or even into early manhood this concern about being adult is a mark of really arrested development. When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

He didn’t use the word “mature”, but I think his point is the same. Insisting on some arbitrary type of “adult” content is the most childish thing a person can do. A truly mature person recognises that they like what they like and no one else gets a say in it. I mean, an adult can watch Barney the dinosaur if they damn well please. The show wasn’t intended for anyone over the age of 5, but if a 40-year-old sees something pleasing about the show, why not watch? Maybe they find it relaxing after a stressful day of work.

Because mature people are also discerning. They’re the quietly confident ones with taste and insight. They’re the polar opposite of the “mature” things that would traumatize a child. Revelling in fighting and sex isn’t necessarily a mature thing to do. Heck, it’s not even a psychologically balanced thing to do. I think that’s the real measure of an adult: the ability to look past flashy novelty and appreciate the nuances of things.

Just look at Harry Potter. The series was a surprise hit with adults, probably because that story of a destined boy had a lot of interesting detail that a kid would take for granted. The story has worldbuilding and social commentary. There were racial tensions, and elaborate cover-ups, and characters struggling to do the right thing. Just because the main character was a kid didn’t mean the saga lacked maturity. But some people are still ashamed to be seen reading those “kids’ books” in public. Part of the problem is probably the stylized cover art.

This isn’t photorealistic at all! Where are the explosions?

Another part is probably the recent trendiness of dark, grim fantasy — under the belief that happiness, justice and noble ideals are somethow less suitable for adults than murder and rape. The people who think Harry Potter is exclusively for children probably don’t have a problem reading Game of Thrones on the bus.

This maturity connundrum is something I encounter a lot with my writing career. I have non-human characters full of peaceful intent, so many people draw a conclusion of, “Oh, so it’s a children’s book full of cute little woodland animals?” There isn’t a lot of precident for what I do, so I navigate a minefield of cultural assumptions. As for the covers, I’m careful not to include any of my Aligare characters in the cover designs. If I made the cover look edgy enough to counter the “cute animal people”, I’d contradict the peace, understanding and actual maturity I’m trying to convey inside that cover.

Pictured: Peregrine of Ruelle as played by Bruce Willis, in this summer’s intense action thriller.

Fortunately, every parent I’ve met has been wise enough to ask me if my work is actually appropriate for their elementary-school-aged kids. Not really, I tell them. Remedy doesn’t have gory battles or overt sex, but it does have some pretty graphic medical drama. Watching a character struggle to breathe isn’t glamorous or pleasant.

More importantly, I think a certain amount of maturity is needed to understand Peregrine, an older man with long-term responsibilities and a moral quandary. I can’t imagine that a kid under a certain age could grasp why Peregrine is unhappy at the beginning of the story, or why he tries to push his best friend Tillian out of his life. To empathize with people very different from oneself, maturity is needed. I’ve had a report that one particularly advanced 12-year-old reader enjoyed Remedy — which is cool, I guess, but I still found it surprising.

So I guess what I’m saying is that maturity is simple, and yet it’s not. And an actual mature adult should be able to handle that.

One Comment on “What maturity means”

  1. […] a toy, not a real astronaut. But these well-known icons modern times often fall into the trap of being appropriate for all ages, therefore seeming “childish”. I mean, kids like animals and objects even better when they smile and talk, […]

Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s