Who are the gatekeepers?

Cover of "West Side Story (Original Sound...

Last Thursday I went to see West Side Story at the Téâtre du Châtelet. Well when  I say I, me, the Frog, Segolene Royal, an ex colleague of mine, about two thousand other people and some kids. I don’t know about Ms Royal, but my ex colleague loved it. Her eyes were all sparkly and she practically skipped away, humming the show tunes after our all too brief chat. I loved it too and have been breaking out into bars of: I want to live in America and I feel pretty, I’m so pretty, ever since. I was born in the seventies so I have no shame about loving musicals and like my parents before me, I’ve been brainwashing my child with Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music and The Wizard of Oz since before she could talk. But West Side Story is different.

After having seen West Side Story, I see there is a divide. On one side the saccharin musicals of my youth and on the other the gritty realism of West Side Story, Cabaret and perhaps… Fame. In my head it’s pretty clear, there are musicals I would take my kid to see and there are musicals I wouldn’t. Sweeney Todd for instance, that one can wait, as can West Side Story.

A few years ago I took my ever so slightly under age nieces to see the third installment of Twilight. I’m not a prude, but I found myself having to explain all kinds of ‘sex’ stuff on the metro home, which had my fellow passengers in fits of laughter. But you know at the end of the day sex is something that everyone does, so it’s not a biggie. But rape, do you want to explain that to your six-year-old?

A few weeks ago Bryony Pearce at The Edge blog brought up the issue of violence in YA literature. As a YA author she highlighted the fact that sex and swearing have to be done carefully, but it seems to be a free for all where violence is concerned. Where I can divide musicals clearly into two categories, in literature the issue becomes a little fuzzier. For instance at first there I was thinking to myself: oh no, I would never show my kid a film that’s above a U or PG rating and I read all the books first, but then I read her Beware of the Frog by William Bee quite happily, even though the Frog EATS all the bad guys. And in Up the dog chase scene scares the bejaysus out of the bubba (personally, I always blub at the beginning). Bryony raises a few questions such as:

Is it because this graphic violence is commonly fantasy violence and therefore not sufficiently realistic to raise an eyebrow amongst established gatekeepers?
Is it because we think teens are so de-sensitised to violence already?

I remember reading an interview with Colin Farrell a few months ago where he said the violence in Total Recall was toned down from the original because industry couldn’t justify a really expensive film for such a small audience anymore. The film is set in the future and the tech is pretty out there, but I’d just seen the trailer and it still seemed violent to me. In my head, when you run out of fingers to count the dead, it’s violent.

So where do we draw the line? And more importantly should the line be drawn? This is where the fuzziness even starts to get a little fizzy. I don’t think we should censor books. Flowers for Algernon is on some banned book lists? Can anyone tell me why? Or Anne Frank? What’s that all about? Let’s forget there was ever a war because it was real violence. I just don’t get that.

Films have ratings, but with that comes the controversy of cut scenes and let’s face it censorship. So far books have escaped this kind of censorship (mostly, there’s still Banned Book Week). I don’t go out of my way to read banned books or violent books, but I seem to have read quite a few of the books that was on the list I found, which perhaps goes to highlight the folly of banning a book in the first place. It’s based on ‘someone’s’ subjective viewpoint and as film and book reviews highlight, what is good for one is not necessarily good for another.

So who should the gatekeepers be for the books (and West Side Story)? Well, at the moment I think it’s a fine balancing act between we the parents and the Bubba. The first time I read Beware of the Frog as a bedtime story, my Frog glared at me and said: It’s not a bedtime story, now the Bubba understands the story a bit more (or has become desensitised to the violent, scary aspect of the book). I didn’t take the Bubba to see West Side Story because she wouldn’t have understood the storyline and would have spoilt my enjoyment by asking questions the whole way through. I didn’t know there was a rape scene in it, but now that I do, I’d want her to have at least a rudimentary knowledge of sex before she found out what rape was and therefore that will determine when she gets to see it. Eventually I and the Frog will no longer be the gatekeepers and she will go on to read whatever she wants whenever she wants. And I’m hoping, even though I am conflicted about the whole violence thing, that it will still be entirely up to her.