Audiences are disillusioned with the often misleading rating system. Photo: WVS/Foter/CCBY-NC

Australia’s  classifications system may need an overhaul, writes Madeleine Clarke.

Batman was once a a cartoon, with comical onomatopoeia splashed across the screen and a Robin who carried a handbag. Anyone who has seen The Dark Knight Rises will soon tell you that this is very much a thing of the past. Children under 15 can stroll right into this M-rated film and watch Bane break a man’s neck.

There has been a noteworthy rise in violence and adult themes in modern entertainment, a global shift that has seen more frequent use of explicit and confronting imagery, partly made possible by advancing cinematic technologies. What hasn’t changed, however, is the appeal of superheroes to children, and the marketing of them, dark as they are, to a very young age group.

This unsettling new relationship between identified child audiences and often extremely adult content has called Australia’s classification system into question. Parents and other members of the public are disillusioned with ratings, which are often misleading. In a time where media aimed at kids is highly sexualized and physically violent the importance of a solid ratings body that parents can trust is perhaps more important than ever.

Father of four, Brian Gibson said: “It is regularly frustrating to be watching a show with my children in a suitable classification for them and having to scurry for the remote to either mute the program, turn the TV off or change the channel to avoid them hearing or seeing something we don’t want them to.”

“The classifiers are way to liberal with content they let in to classifications. I believe they had it right 20 years ago. Why change it? Were Australia’s parents consulted to do this?”

Parents have to keep a close eye on everything their children consume just to ensure they aren’t exposed to something potentially harmful or simply inappropriate. With media trends following in the somewhat bloody footsteps of the Twilight saga, novels and films constructed around the dominant themes of sex, death and the supernatural are not only followed by children under 10 years old, but actively marketed at this age group.

The Twilight Series was nominated for the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards, 2012. The winner of the awards, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, comically traces the falls of Greg Heffley, a kid thrust into a new school year “where undersize weaklings share the corridors with kids who are taller, meaner and already shaving” (Quoted from the blurb, 2008). Twilight, on the other hand, is the supernatural love saga between Bella Swan and Edward, centred around teen vampiric violence, death, love and lust. The startling differences between these two texts raise questions as to what children are consuming through the media, and whether the material is appropriate.

With children in active pursuit of such content, it could be said that classification has a vital role to play in helping parents to protect their children from scenes that could be confronting and have a negative effect develop-mentally. It is public consensus however, that this role is not being fulfilled.

Mr. Gibson’s sentiments are echoed by the Australian Council on Children and the Media (ACCM), who called for a review of the Classification Scheme in July.
Elizabeth Handsley, president of the ACCM said in a media release: “It is time the National Classification Scheme supported Australian parents by providing more detailed, reliable and consistent information about the films and games on offer for their children.”
“The existing scheme does not provide sufficient details about the influence of content on children at different developmental levels under the age of fifteen.”

According to the Australian Government Classification website, decisions on ratings are made in reference to the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) Act 1995. The adaptation of a book to film, as seen in Harry Potter, Twilight and recently The Hunger Games places texts in a visual medium where graphic realism is increasingly potent. Classification has not made any changes in operation to accommodate this phenomenon, apparently since 1995. In the words of Mr. Gibson: “They need to be more prescriptive and be aligned with the sentiment of parents.”

While the nature of childhood itself may have changed along with the entertainment aimed at it, a cohesive and clear system of classification is obviously still valued by the Australian public.