If you're like me, just hearing the term trigger warning, or seeing the little acronym “TW” will make you roll your eyes so hard that you see your own brain. This could be due to my first experience of the trigger warning taking place on the website Tumblr, which has a, not undue, reputation for being extreme in its reactions to most things, and I quickly fell out with the term after seen a bunch of trigger warning tags for seemingly mundane things. However, warnings have their place, in fact, we have lived with warnings in entertainment for years. So, is it just the name that causes the eye rolling or do trigger warnings actually differ from their popular counterpart, the content warning.
Anyone who has watched a movie will be aware of the age classifications. In the UK we have U, PG, 12A, 15, and 18. The PEGI system is the equivalent for games and it comes in two forms, age labels and content labels. The content labels cover everything from sex and bad language to discrimination and the umbrella term, fear. These systems are shortcuts that allow consumers to easily pick the right kind of movie or game for them. However, these descriptions are vague and may, at times, put people through emotional upheaval that, through reading content warnings, they had sought to avoid. Sometimes, in seemingly harmless movies, there are hidden dangers.
There is a website called “Does The Dog Die.” It is a website that, with a simple search, can tell you if the movie you are thinking of watching has an instance of a dog dying which most of us would agree is pretty traumatic to watch. Having checked the DVD rating for one famous dog death movie, Marley And Me, there is no mention of death or the usual “scenes may be unsuitable for younger viewers” despite it being a PG. There are overall warnings for the amount of violence (mild) and other themes but, if the main thing that could put you off this movie is the dog dying then you go in blind. Another example from a kid’s movie happened to me while watching Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge. It is undoubtedly a kid’s movie, it even has warnings for the little violence and adult themes there are, but they didn't account for that small subset of us that suffer from Submechaphobia- the fear of submerged structures including shipwrecks and were therefore watching through our fingers every time Salazar's ship was on screen. I have similar problems with the film Titanic, which again is not a film designed to cause fear.
Even in the extreme genres, like horror, sometimes the content warnings just aren't enough to protect us from our own personal fears and phobias, and perhaps if there had been a website called “Does This Horror Involve Severe Facial Injuries” I could have made it through Saw without being terrified to the point of nightmares by the jaw trap. Granted, nothing happened, but the countdown and the threat that it was still makes me feel sick.
A trigger warning covers this kind of information. Rather than an overall warning for fear, violence, or drugs, it is more refined. The best use of it is under the term “upsetting scenes” where it can cover death, like the website example above, or grief, funerals, anything that could be deemed upsetting. The problem with the more refined warnings is that you cannot cover everything that your audience may find hard to deal with.
Trigger warnings have become a term that has been twisted in certain areas of the internet into a short hand way of saying “I don't want to deal with this,” and from that, have found their way into an insult against anyone who has found something offensive. The problem isn't the warning itself, it’s the connotations. Many people, myself included, sigh when we see them attached to bodies of work, yet we readily rate our work to make sure the appropriate audience consumes it, and no one has to face something that they were unprepared for. But we also need to understand as consumers that, sometimes, that shock may come not because there aren't content warnings but because we all have phobias, fears, and pasts that have shaped us, and no amount of warnings can cover everything.
As creators we have to label our work. We have a duty to protect our readers from things that could hurt them, and that means including something as simple as an age range, or an umbrella warning for violence or death so that people can make informed choices. We, however, can't cover everything, and that's why we all must do our own research if we feel there is a potentially triggering moment lurking in a movie or book, especially if our triggers are things the majority of people don't find upsetting. Between the two, everyone should get out of entertainment what was intended, enjoyment.
And, perhaps, we should just stick to the term “content warning” for now.
K.Lawrence hails from the wilds of north east Scotland and has been writing for longer than she can remember. Her first novel, The Raven And the Nightingale, is currently available through Amazon and Inkubus Publishing. The sequel is in the works. K has also written several short stories which have appeared in Inkubus Publishing Anthologies and one short story that has appeared in the latest A Murder of Storytellers anthology.
When she is not writing, K likes to play guitar, go to concerts, take photographs of everything and anything, and paint. She is also an avid collector of Funko Pops and other geek memerobilia.