This is a post about trigger warnings and critical discourse in relationship to entertainment media. The intent here is to explain them to people who are under a mistaken impression about why people engage in these things. I don’t think this will do anything to sway the noisiest detractors, those who are less motivated by a quest for the truth than by a quest for a convenient political punching bag, but I think there’s probably a mass of people in the middle who don’t really understand what it’s all about, but they are definitely against censorship , so if someone claims to be speaking against censorship they’ll be inclined towards sympathy.
The thing is that neither trigger warnings nor critical analysis amount to censorship. If anything, attempts to scuttle them are closer to censorship. You can’t believe in the free exchange of information and opinions and fight against people freely exchanging information and opinions.
There’s a show I discovered on Netflix, after it was over and done with. It’s called Bomb Girls. It is a period piece about the workers at a Canadian munitions factory during World War II. I could say that I like this a lot and it would be a true statement, but I wouldn’t make a blanket statement of “I recommend this show, go watch it.” I would instead try to include some context and nuance to my recommendation.
There are reasons to do this for any piece of entertainment you’re recommending, because neither “quality” nor “enjoyability” are simple one dimensional objective quantities. Now, if you’re talking to a specific person or a specific audience where there are some broad things that are known or can be assumed about tastes, you don’t always have to spell out the specific nuance.
For instance, if I were to tell a family member or one of my best friends, “You should check out _____, I think you’ll like it,” I’m already taking on board what I know about them into the statement “I think you’ll like it.”
My older brother once told me, “I am not the target audience for anything described as a spiritual successor to The Sandman.” This was not a slam on The Sandman, just him speaking to his experiences with a certain swath of fantasy comics. He had tried enough of them and found that they weren’t for him that he wasn’t interested in sampling further. So, I take that on board when I’m making recommendations to him. If I don’t mention a comic to him because it fits that criteria, it’s not a statement on how much I appreciated it or what I think its quality is. I’m just taking into account his tastes.
Similarly, when I’m making general recommendations, I try to remember to relate them to other things that people might be familiar with. “If you enjoyed _______ and you’re looking for more things that _______ the way it did, then you might find this to be up your alley.” Stuff like that. I might also caution people, “If you’re looking for ________, you won’t find it here.” I don’t think I’ve ever said anything like,”If you’re getting bored with ________, this might not be to your tastes,” as that’s never been a major consideration for me, but I’m sure people have mentioned such in their reviews and recommendations.
The thing is, I don’t think anybody would reasonably look at things like these and conclude that there’s some kind of censorship at work or that anybody’s trying to influence/restrict the allowable content of work by praising things conditionally in ways that center on these specific elements.
To bring this back to Bomb Girls… well, I’m about to post a video that is one of my favorite scenes in the series. It’s a powerful scene. It’s not a scene I can recommend without nuance or context, though. See, it’s actually the juxtaposition of two different scenes, one of which includes homophobic violence directed at a lesbian couple. (Spoiler warning: They do survive.)
I know people who have experienced that kind of trauma and cannot have it shoved in their faces without a warning and the chance to either prepare or choose not to experience it without being triggered. Even if I didn’t, I know that there are such people.
I also know people who just… don’t want that sprung on them. Or don’t want to see it. They’ve seen too much of it in reality and in fiction and they either have to be in the right mood to see it, or they’re just done with it. Too many queer tragedies, not enough happy endings. They’re just not interested.
Now, the thing is, no one would look at a dude saying that he’s seen enough would-be successors to The Sandman to know that giving his time and money to others in that line would be a poor gamble and conclude, “SO YOU’RE SAYING THAT BECAUSE YOU DON’T WANT TO SEE THIS, NO ONE SHOULD MAKE IT?” No one would look at me making a review/recommendation that acknowledges that not everyone wants to see that and say, “SO YOU’RE SAYING THAT NO ONE IS ALLOWED TO LIKE THIS?”
Some contrarian troll might crop up with, “But by writing off an entire sub-genre of work on the basis of a perceived association with another work, you are being close minded and might be missing out on works that deserve your attention!” or some such nonsense, but there wouldn’t be much vehemence to it.
But if I were to just post the video I’m talking about without this preface and preamble, only the words: “TRIGGER WARNING: HOMOPHOBIC VIOLENCE” in front of it… well, I’d get all that and more.
Even though the point of posting the video would be to say, “This is a really cool, really powerful scene in a show I really like,” the fact that I added this particular bit of nuance and context would be taken as a sign that I’m trying to censor or control the content, trying to control what people are allowed to make and what they’re allowed to like.
Here’s the video, by the way:
(If this doesn’t show up in a crosspost, click the source link for the original post.)
This is the actual use of Trigger Warnings: to respectfully allow people some choice of what content they will engage with, when, and on what terms. It’s not an act of censorship. It does not take control away from the creators of content nor the consumers. Rather, it allows the consumer to make an informed choice.
Arguments against them like “There are no warnings in real life!” are both wrong and wrong-headed. There are warnings in real life; they’re somewhat haphazardly implemented, but they’re there. We make an effort to warn people about everything from dips and bumps in the road to the level of violence and adult situations in a movie, not because no one should ever drive down an uneven road but because if you know the ups and downs are coming you can pass through them more safely.
That’s all a trigger warning is. Some people need them because of literal PTSD triggers. Some people simply use them to make an informed choice.
Now, let’s move past trigger warnings and talk about critical discourse. I like this show. I actually love it. But there are things about it that frustrate me. The fact that there’s only one character in the core ensemble who is The Gay Girl (e.g., tokenism) is part of that. The fact that her romantic attachments are mired in tragedy is part of that. The fact that a character who seems to be set up as gay in the first episode and who the canonically gay character Betty spends the series pining for to the point that Betty makes huge sacrifices for her happiness is part of that. The fact that these kinds of stories are told over and over and over again, without a lot of counterexamples, is part of that.
If I were to talk about this, as I’m doing now, I might be told, “But that’s realistic! You can’t complain about this because that’s the kind of thing that really happened! Queer people were forced to hide and subject to violence and legal penalties and bigotry and job discrimination! And Bomb Girls isn’t some fantasy wish fulfillment story! It’s about how hard life was during wartime for everybody! Everybody’s plotlines were full of hardship.”
And the thing is that not one of those points is wrong, per se, but none of them actually address what I’m talking about. It also ignores the fact that just because a tragic plotline is realistic doesn’t mean a happy plotline would have been unrealistic. Bad things happen in real life, but so do good things.
And even if you believe that Betty’s plotline was artistically exactly what the show needed to do…
What does that have to do with whether a person does or does not want to watch another retread of the same tragic lesbian tropes? Nothing, no more than someone who doesn’t want to read any more “mythic” style fantasy comics is a statement on the merit of those comics.
So often the reception this kind of critical discourse gets by people who don’t engage with their media like this amounts to, “YOU DON’T LIKE ANYTHING AND YOU DON’T THINK ANYBODY ELSE SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO LIKE ANYTHING! YOU DON’T THINK [WOMEN/QUEER PEOPLE/ETC] SHOULD EVER BE ALLOWED TO BE SHOWN SUFFERING ANY ADVERSITY WHICH MEANS YOU THINK THEY’RE PRECIOUS FRAGILE SNOWFLAKES WHICH MEANS IT IS YOU WHO IS ______IST!”
But, man… even if somebody started watching Bomb Girls, saw which way the wind was blowing, and declared the show to be absolute trash (and I’m sure there are people who did this), that’s not actually what they’re saying. At all.
And it’s certainly not what everybody is saying, whenever they deal in a nuanced, contextual analysis of the content of a book or show. The idea that anyone who grapples with this kind of thing is inherently anti-fun or anti-art is just so strange to me, especially because the people who bash on this kind of criticism say things like, “I watch TV/read comics/play video games for ENTERTAINMENT. I don’t want to have to deal with a bunch of real-world issues every time I do that! It’s supposed to be ESCAPISM!”
Yeah, we get that.
So, can you understand why someone who deals with violence and discrimination and fear and isolation for being queer might not want to have to deal with those real-world issues when they’re just looking to be entertained?
It seems pretty straightforward to me.