Archive for the ‘Objectionable Content’ Category

Remarks about “Objectionable Content”

August 6, 2009

The following was originally posted on the MELIBS listserv by Kelley McDaniel <> on Sun, 17 May 2009 14:27:32 under the subject: Remarks about “objectionable content”


I was attending the Comic Arts Festival at Ocean Gateway this morning and heard a talk for librarians and teachers by Peter Gutierrez. His talk was good, but there was one thing that he said that bothered me.

I feel the need to say my piece regarding his comment, so I am using the MELIBS forum to do that—I am also cc-ing Peter my remarks.

Peter’s comment was in reference to the Marvel Adventures line of comics; Peter said, “These contain no objectionable content.”

My intellectual freedom fighter ears perked up. What does that mean, “contains no objectionable content”?

TANGENT: Last fall I attended the YALSA YA Lit Symposium in Nashville and the issue of age ratings on manga comics came up. There was, on the part of the panelists universal agreement that these were a good thing. Later, a National Board Certified school librarian referenced Tokyopop’s age ratings guide as a good thing for librarians to use. I was horrified. This issue—age ratings on books—is a hot debate topic in our profession, not a we-all-agree-this-is-a-good-thing decided issue. The ALA has an Interpretation of the Library Bill of Rights on Labeling and Rating Systems. This debate is still alive and well and is by no means a done deal. Why was it being presented as a done deal, and a good done deal at that?

Now, back to the story …

My remarks about the “objectionable content” comment are as follows:

1) There is no agreed upon definition of “objectionable content”, so the phrase is meaningless.

Some people think that children should not be exposed to the words for sexual body parts and functions. Is reference to body parts or bodily functions objectionable?

Some people think that depicting same sex couples is “objectionable” for children. Are homosexual people objectionable?

Some people think that showing children depictions of male and female characters in gender stereotyped clothing is objectionable. Are gender stereotypes objectionable?

So what does it mean to say that something “contains no objectionable content”? As my thirteen year old son says, “The only thing that contains no objectionable content is a blank page.”

If the creators of the work say that the work contains no profanity, or no violence, or no sexuality, then that may have some meaning. *Although I would caution that someone may bring the material back to the creator and point out something profane (‘In our family “darn” is not allowed as we consider it too close to its profane counterpart.’) or violent (“In this story, two children were arguing and the argument was not resolved in the context of the story.”) or sexual (“In our religion boys and girls are not allowed to touch, and in the story boys and girls touch each other …”).

This leads to my second remark:

2) Talking about literature as containing or not containing “objectionable content” is looking at literature with a censor’s eyes rather than with an intellectual freedom advocate’s eyes. We can look at a work of literature (or music or film or video game) by searching it for flaws, things we don’t like—“objectionable content”; or we can look at a work of literature (etc.) as a whole and complete thing.

Making a big deal about a literary or artistic work having “no objectionable content” invites—no it actually encourages us to look at literary and artistic works through that lens, the lens of a censor.

This is already a problem that teachers and librarians have. We preview material looking for “objectionable content” when we should be considering the work as a whole. We choose not to read a book or show a movie in a class because of a “potentially objectionable” scene.

We should be asking ourselves, “Is there any educationally or pedagogically sound reason to have and use this material?”; but instead we find ourselves asking, “Is there any reason that this work might (might!?) be considered objectionable?”

I think that, as professionals, we need not only to talk about censorship, but to talk about how we talk about censorship, i.e. engage in meta-conversations. I am frustrated with careless use of language contributing to the problem of teachers and librarians thinking like censors.