McCarthy: Coming to terms with mature content

Sometimes, we view media at an age when we can’t relate to it emotionally or maturely.

by Kate McCarthy

By the time you’re in college, it’s been years since you were kept away from something because it was “inappropriate.” Once you hit 18, nothing is out of bounds. But is it possible for certain media and messages to be inappropriate in deeper, emotional ways? 

It’s been said before, but bears repeating here for context: the age of Netflix and internet indubitably did big things in terms of kids having access to pretty much everything, whether emotionally ready or not. But once you reach the teenage years, just by being around other kids, you have a pretty good landscape for all things “inappropriate.” You’re ready for “rated R” at 13. 

Then, with the constant bombardment of media, easily accessible at our fingertips, you’re seeing everything. 

It’s a tenuous age. I remember being about 15 when “Orange is the New Black” came out. The show certainly has mature content, but nothing I didn’t feel ready for, nothing I hadn’t heard recounted in cafeteria stories or seen snippets of elsewhere. But what I maybe couldn’t fully grasp at that age were the emotional complexities below the surface. 

Being roughly between the ages of 15-20 is a time in which you’re watching and technically ready for shows like “Orange is the New Black” or “Girls” or fill in the blank, no shock value is too extreme, but you can’t emotionally identify with the shows. 

My friends and I were freshmen in college when “Master of None” came out. We spent a few weekend nights diving into the show, and it was right in that sweet spot of college interest — grounded by a comedian we knew and loved (Aziz Ansari), featuring hip music and aesthetic choices, an authentically diverse perspective, and issues of sex and relationships we could see ourselves in. But as the season ended, some mature themes came into play: when you’re in your mid twenties to early thirties, how do you approach your relationships, as conventions like marriage and kids loom? How do you approach your career and join it with your passions? 

For a long time afterwards, I was anxiously thinking about these themes. I was suddenly acutely aware of the tribulations that belong to people a decade older than me, and took them on as my own. A prime example: in my own romantic relationships, dating at 19 and 20, I couldn’t stop thinking about far off problems like the passion fading or settling for someone because it’s convenient — all sorts of things that shouldn’t have been governing my life. 

In watching TV shows like this (and most movies too), it wasn’t any shock value inappropriateness that stuck with me, but rather themes that I wasn’t equipped to fully understand or deal with yet. 

Perhaps it’s not about cut-and-dry readiness for explicit content, but rather for themes that are too mature and can work their way into the mind in harmful ways. But maybe seeing these issues emerge first in our entertainment softens the blow for later. I’m in no way suggesting we halt the consumption of great TV just because some of the themes make us squeamish. However, I do think it’s important for young viewers to keep in mind that these themes are real, but for a different time of life.