Trigger Warnings and Pop Culture

by aronjerrison

Content note: intentional conflation of trigger warnings with content notes

Over the past couple years, a series of conversations with different people on similar topics has led me to form an opinion which I should very much like to share.

I got a phone call last year from my mother telling me that her next door neighbour (with whom I have some serious political differences) was attempting to ban a book that was on the curriculum at the high school that both her son and my brother attend.* The reason that my mother had called me was that she wanted to know what I thought she ought to do.

After making the potentially inflammatory statement that if she supported banning a book, any book, I would cut all ties with her, we had a long discussion during which we came to an agreement: the best thing to do would be to petition the school to provide all the parents of students reading the book with a run down of the potentially objectionable aspects of the book. This is not so that they can make the decision to “opt out”, but rather to give them a heads up so that they can be prepared to discuss these topics with their children.

It was only later that I realised that we had just reinvented the trigger warning.

When I began my foray into the feminist blog-o-sphere, I loved the idea of trigger warnings. We can talk about some serious problems, and it’s truly refreshing to have warning and be able to not read a post if I know that it might be difficult for me to read.

It is for this reason, that I would love to see trigger warnings in use everywhere.

Why doesn’t the Harry Potter series have trigger warnings for child abuse and neglect? The books have been challenged a great deal over the years, but it’s always been for silly reasons like promoting witchcraft. All the while, Harry suffers from criminal neglect and no one in the books mentions it as anything other than sad. I think that the discussion about child abuse in these books is one that needs to happen, and that warnings might start people thinking.

It’s not just books either. I want this for movies, comics, video games, art. If it would be describable as ‘text’ in a comparative literature class, it should have trigger warnings.

I have been asked if the movie rating system is what I’m looking for. Unfortunately, it’s not. I would love to be able to point to the MPAA and say “Yes, that’s what I want.” but they limit the accessibility of their reviewed works based on age which is pretty much the opposite of what I want. Don’t take it upon yourself to police the work, give fair warning and allow parents to make the decision with their children.

I have been told that this is an idealistic pipe dream, and that’s probably true. But as my earlier posts have shown, I’m an idealist.

So how about instead of looking at how unrealistic it is, just think about how nice it would be.

The first time that I asked my dad if I could watch an ‘R’ rated film, he sat me down and discussed the major aspects of the film that I, as a child, might find shocking, disturbing, or frightening. After the discussion, having decided that I was appropriately prepared, he let me watch the film.** Even if we’re ignoring the obvious benefits of trigger warnings, i.e. the purpose for which they were designed, I think that it would be wonderful to have this sort of discourse happening every time that a child watches a film or reads a book.

And hey, if you agree with me, maybe, together, we can make this happen.


*I cannot for the life of me remember what the book was.

**Nor can I remember the film.