Judge The Work, Not The Audience

Seth and Snape street art,  Newtown NSW circa 2006
Seth and Snape street art, Newtown NSW circa 2006

 

In which I get all a bit hot under the collar about people who dismiss youth media (or any genre storytelling) because of their own prejudices about the intended audience.

When we think of ‘ageism’, we generally think of a bias towards the young over the old. We see it everywhere as we are collectively sold the lie that to be worthwhile and valid as a person, you must be youthful and beautiful in the way only youthful, ‘beautiful’ people can be.

Along with the elderly (and not even that elderly – apparently turning 40 means you are about to die), I would also like to add children and teens into our conception of ageism. As a society, we devalue our youth in the same way we devalue our elders.

This is not an earth-shattering notion. We were all kids and teenagers once and we all remember being treated unfairly simply because of the assumptions other people made about us because of our age. At one time or another, we have all had our feelings and wishes overlooked by the adults in our lives, and society in general, who wave us away with the self-assured smugness that comes with ‘knowing what’s best’.

I am not for a moment advocating that the youth of the world be turfed out into the streets and be given free rein to do as they please. Rather, my point is that young people are just as much people as any of us first, before their age even comes into it. Same goes for anyone who falls in that category ‘human’. We are all worthwhile, valid beings, regardless of our age.

This article was posted on web mag Slate a little while back and caused quite the stir. There were numerous replies to it that more than adequately shot down the stance it took and its assumptions about Young Adult (YA) fiction.

For me, it was a disappointment. The writer, an ex-librarian, single-handedly dismissed an entire genre for, in my opinion, flimsy and narrow reasons with the explicit intent of shaming adults who enjoy reading YA. The key message I got from it, one I doubt the writer was intending to make, was that adults should be ashamed of enjoying YA work because as adults, they should have become better people by now than those pesky teenagers with their pesky teenage emotions. Please feel free to read the article yourself and make up your own mind.

As a media producer who’s worked across a range of genres, and as a hearty, life-long consumer of stories of all descriptions, the article is yet another confirmation of what I think is a much more dangerous state of affairs. It is a small expression of a collective mindset that devalues entire audiences by devaluing the stories made specifically for them.

We all know the folly of generalising, so I am consistently flabbergasted at the generalisations people make about genre, particularly youth media, in light of the fact we are surrounded by a dearth of both equally excellent and appalling storytelling (and a whole lot of in the middle stuff too) from every category. It pains me to think that people still firmly hold that one genre can be of inherently more value than another — just because these self-proclaimed judges deem it to be so.

I find the idea of people looking down on children’s and YA literature, film and television in particular distasteful because it is usually inextricably linked to a judgement about the worth of the audience, and so is ultimately about seeing that audience as lesser beings. How else are you supposed to understand someone placing a sweeping blanket judgement on one genre defined solely by the age bracket of its intended audience? As a society, we place our conception of ‘adult’ over our conception of ‘non-adult’ at almost every juncture. And it comes with a cultural entitlement that assumes overt superiority of one audience over another.

I call bullsh*t.

Don’t like the Twilight books? I don’t blame you. Don’t like the Twilight movies? I really don’t blame you. But in my experience, people who hate Twilight generally haven’t read a single book or seen a movie — they base their judgement on the screaming teens and tweens (and adults, I may add) the franchise garners for an audience. And while no one really wants to go deaf when they go to the movies, why equate one specific work with an entire audience, an entire genre?

Nothing is that clear-cut in reality.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly didn’t magically become a whole and fully formed person with no intention of growing, learning or changing one jot the minute I turned 18. Or 21. Or 30. We as a human race do not pop out of ovens.

This idea that we somehow come to a permanence of who we are and what we will respond to by the time we are ‘adults’ is patently ridiculous, paternalistic rubbish. So too is the idea that someone in one age group can’t possibly make an emotional connection to or find pleasure and value in a work that is designed for another age group. Why do we continue to believe that kids books, teen movies, picture books and animated works for anyone under the age of 16 are somehow trivial and to be dismissed by anyone older than the label?

Consider the picture books of Shaun Tan. What about Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy? Do you like The Breakfast Club? Love or hate Harry Potter? Anything from Pixar? Have you seen the TV series Horrible Histories, adapted from the incredibly popular children’s non-fiction books?

It is one thing to dislike a particular genre based on a proper exploration of what it has to offer and finding a personal preference for something else. But it is quite another to judge an entire canon based purely on biased associations.

In terms of youth media, you may think I’m biased. I have worked in children’s publishing and in children’s television and have done so because I love it. What stimulates me the most about working in youth media in this day and age is that it is a constantly shifting audience which in truth is made up of lots of different audiences, from pre-schoolers through to young adults, who are all more literate than ever before and have more access to information and stories than ever before. And each audience within that broader youth audience has different needs and responds to different things. Same goes for any genre really.

 

 

But working in children’s media has not been my only experience — far from it — and it certainly is not my sole passion, so please know I am not coming from a place of ‘us’ and ‘them’. I just don’t understand why anyone would label and misjudge an entire audience through sweeping generalisations they make about the stories made for that audience. In fact, if you were going to judge an audience by it’s stories, wouldn’t careful, intricate analysis serve you better?

We do not climb an audience ladder, looking to reach a pinnacle of cultural propriety that gives us permission to spit down on those beneath us. There is no ladder. And what one person finds interesting and creatively stimulating does not immediately make it more valid than what interests and stimulates another. Most people know this (I hope), but there are a lot who don’t.

Think of those of us who roll our eyes at the sight of a man in a suit playing his Playstation Portable on the train. Think of those of us who pity the woman reading the Mills & Boon novel at the bus stop. Think of those of us who judge our co-worker reading her copy of The Fault in our Stars in her lunch break.

What working in youth media has certainly shown me is that as a society and in the media business, we devalue the work of those who make youth media (for people aged up to their teens). And that is generally tied to our society’s conception of young people ultimately being worth less than adults (yes, from a monetization perspective as well as a cultural perspective), and the media made for young people being of no value to anyone older, or society in general.

Here’s a real world example.

In Australia, the award wage (minimum wage for you non-Aussies out there) for writing children’s television is staggeringly less than writing for adult television. It varies, but you can hazard that it’s roughly a third of the standard adult fee. Writing for children’s animated television is paid even less, the commonly held belief that writing an episode for a live-action children’s drama series is fundamentally worth more than writing for an animated children’s series (although word on the grapevine is that this particular disparity is slowly being addressed).

We subscribe to the idea that writing television for one audience is fundamentally a more skilled pursuit (and therefore worth fundamentally more) than another. And even within the same audience, one specific genre of storytelling is ascribed a greater monetary value than another.

I can tell you now this is the biggest ongoing lie we tell ourselves as storytellers, that writing for a youth audience is fundamentally easier than writing for an adult audience. What tripe. And yet, our cultural biases are ingrained in industrial law, which of course set the agenda for how broadcasters and financiers financially value work, which of course sets the agenda for how producers schedule, budget and manage production.

From personal experience, the actual work required, the dedication of the writers required, the drive required to produce any of these genres is fundamentally the same. Yet, drama writers are given more time and space (and money!) to play, but it doesn’t change the fact that all the same questions have to be asked, all the same processes have to take place and in the end, it still requires someone sitting down to the write the damn thing. The skills required to write for specific genres is also key — and I would include writing for children to be a skill as difficult to master as any other. I have seen great, award-winning writers stumble and fall (and have to be very gently removed from a project) because they just couldn’t write for the audience. We do not like to talk about it, but it’s true.

Let me put forward another scenario.

How many children’s and YA publishers have been approached out there by smiling high-achievers who want to write a children’s book because, you know, wouldn’t it be lovely and they’ve always wanted to? How many film and television producers out there have decided on a whim to make a children’s film or series because they think it’ll be easy, fun, a light-weight gig that will give them endless amounts of professional kudos…?

I face palm these people.

I would speculate that it was not easier to make, say, The Iron Giant (1999) than it was to make The King’s Speech (2010). I’ve plucked these films out of the air, but I think we can agree, both are excellent stories, beautifully constructed, elegantly written and executed. Their worth lies in how well these stories are told, not in their intended audience.

Making youth media isn’t a fundamentally easier experience for producers, authors and creators. Children and teens are not a less discerning and therefore easier market to cater to. Quite the opposite in fact. The hard slog of ‘making’ doesn’t disappear simply because our society gives greater cultural weight to ‘adult’ genres. Writing a book is still writing a book. Making a film is still making a film.

The youth audience is not only a hungry one, it is powerful, engaged and much more influential than many of us would be comfortable admitting. As creators, as a society, we ignore that fact at our peril.

Do we all really need to be reminded that like anything there is a bunch of great stuff and a bunch of terrible stuff out there? Do we all really need to be reminded that people can find enjoyment and entertainment in all types of stories for all sorts of reasons? Do we all really need to be reminded that there are adults reading kids books and kids reading adult books and hundreds of films that don’t sit comfortably in either category?

Not all of us will like young adult fiction, or children’s animation, or Minecraft. There is absolutely nothing wrong about that. But to pass off ones prejudices about young peoples inherent worth as critical insight is not only lame, it’s boring.

When we laugh off or wave away the worth of a work because of its intended audience, we are actually screaming our own narrow-mindedness to the world and, in my opinion, showing a breathtaking lack of understanding of what it takes to actually create something of value. By default, we also show a breathtaking lack of appreciation for an audience — you know, those people that we all share a planet with and the people we as makers rely on to see and hear and read the very stuff we make.

I could make this argument about any type of genre storytelling, or a bunch of other types of media even. The point is, there are a lot of people who completely dismiss entire slabs of work simply because those works don’t fit into their narrow view of what is ‘worth’ taking seriously, and as a consequence, there is a superficial value judgement made on the people who consume that genre. But really, who are any of us to judge this?

In my opinion, a work’s worth is not dependent on derogatory perceptions of its intended audience. Nor is an entire audience deserving of being swept under the rug either. There is no cultural elite we must all aspire to — that audience ladder some of us aim to climb is actually a big lovely open park, and everyone is allowed to go play wherever they damn well like.

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